City of Lawrence continues to suspend late fees and shut-offs for overdue utility accounts; changes to be considered soon
photo by: Mike Yoder
Lawrence city commissioners will soon consider whether to continue suspending utility late fees and shut-offs for the thousands of Lawrence residents who have gotten behind on their bills during the coronavirus pandemic.
The City of Lawrence provides water, sewer, and trash and recycling collection service citywide, and as of Sept. 9, there were about 3,300 active utility accounts with a balance more than 21 days past due, totaling about $944,000 in delinquent payments, according to Finance Director Jeremy Willmoth. Willmoth said the commission would soon decide how long those protections should remain in place and that the city was in the process of setting up a utility assistance program.
The city suspended late fees and shut-offs in March because of the pandemic, and in July 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 at a later date. The city’s utility bill payment system continues to inform residents that no service disconnections or late fees will occur in the coming weeks.
Willmoth said that the commission would get updated numbers about delinquencies and consider whether to discontinue or extend the suspension as part of its meeting next Tuesday. The delinquencies as of Sept. 9 are an improvement from numbers provided to the commission at the end of July, when more than 5,000 Lawrence households had past-due utility balances amounting to $1.35 million in delinquent payments.
Willmoth said the city was working as quickly as possible to set up the utility assistance program, which could begin accepting applications in the coming weeks.
The city has been awarded $500,000 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, for an assistance program to help utility customers with economic hardship due to COVID-19. The city plans to partner with a local social service agency to assess the degree of economic hardship and eligibility for those seeking to participate in the program, according to the city’s funding application. The utility assistance program received the most of any program or project that was supported by the city’s approximately $1.5 million in CARES funding.
Willmoth said the proposals for the utility billing assistance administrator were due on Friday, and city staff will begin reviewing them this week. He said depending on the amount of proposals received, the hope is to have a recommendation to the City Commission by Oct. 20. Once the recommendation is approved and an administrator is selected, the program would soon be able to accept applications.
Other discussions regarding utilities are also upcoming. The 2021 budget approved by the City Commission calls for a flat property tax rate but contemplates increases in all three city utility rates to help support operations and infrastructure projects. Discussions are expected to take place this fall about proposed city utility rate increases that taken together would amount to an approximately $110 annual increase over this year for the typical residential customer using 4,000 gallons of water per month. A date for that meeting has not yet been announced.
As the Journal-World recently reported, a national report found that Lawrence ranks in the top 20 for highest utility bill averages for small metro areas, which includes the city utilities as well as privately provided electricity and gas services. The report also found that Lawrence was tied for 23rd among the small metro areas for highest water and sewer bill averages, which are both provided by the city.