Lawrence residents owe a collective $1.3M in back utility bills; city extends suspension of shutoffs

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on May 3, 2016.

City leaders will soon come up with a plan to help thousands of Lawrence residents who are behind on their utility bills in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The City of Lawrence provides water, sewer, and trash and recycling collection service citywide, and about 5,200 Lawrence households currently have past-due utility balances, amounting to $1.35 million in delinquent payments, according to a city memo. Because of the pandemic, the city has not been charging late fees or disconnecting service for nonpayment since March, and the Lawrence City Commission, as part of its meeting this week, voted to extend those protections until at least Sept. 1. The commission also authorized the finance department to create a payment plan option to assist customers with paying delinquent balances.

The city had recommended that late fees and utility shutoffs resume on only new charges billed after Aug. 1, but commissioners were concerned about the impact that could have on Lawrence residents. Instead, the commission directed city staff to push the date until at least Sept. 1, with the expectation that the commission would take up the topic again for discussion before that.

Mayor Jennifer Ananda said that the city should at least look at continuing to delay collections for residents who could show they have been financially affected by the pandemic — and preferably for all customers. Ananda said she was worried about the cumulative impact of late fees and having bills sent to collections.

“If there is something that we can do to avoid that, I would prefer that because I know that once the snowball starts going down the hill, it can add up real quickly,” Ananda said. “And if this is the result of something completely outside of someone’s control through COVID-19, I think it’s very important to do what we can to protect our residents.”

The pandemic and related health orders have led to high unemployment across the state, including in Lawrence, and a state executive order was issued in March that prohibited utility companies from disconnecting services due to nonpayment. The executive order has since expired, but the city has not yet resumed late fees, service disconnections or collection activities. In response to questions from the commission, Utility Billing Manager Kristy Webb said that the number of people who are behind on their utility bills was significantly higher than normal.

Other commissioners agreed with Ananda’s concerns. Commissioner Stuart Boley also noted that the federal supplement to state unemployment insurance benefit could run out anytime and further affect residents who are struggling financially because of the pandemic.

“So this could get worse before it gets better, and that’s something that we should be really concerned about,” Boley said.

Once developed, the payment plan will allow customers to sign a payment arrangement with the city for delinquent balances and avoid late fees, shutoffs or collection, according to the memo. A date was not set for when the commission would further discuss the date for resuming late fees, disconnections and collection activity, but it was agreed that extending the protections until Sept. 1 would allow the commission to consider the issues at an upcoming meeting sometime before that date.

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