Lack of clear state and federal guidance leads to variety of local policies

WINSTON/MARION  - The Town of Bear Creek is  struggling with paying high water bills due to the town’s decision to not charge late fees  or disconnect service to customers paying their bills late. Town leaders made the decision to hold off on these actions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to higher unemployment which, in turn, could make it difficult for customers to pay their water bills.
Neither the federal government nor the State of Alabama has set a policy for how to handle utility disconnections due to non-payment during the pandemic.  Instead,  each municipality or water authority in the area is allowed to use its own discretion concerning disconnections or charging late fees.  However, they are being urged to  follow recommendations set forth by the Alabama Public Service Commission.
Although the PSC does not regulate municipalities, these municipalities are being urged to follow their guidelines of showing good will to water customers struggling with their bills due to unemployment related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Alabama Department of Public Health’s number one recommendation is for people to wash their hands. In order to wash their hands, they have to have water,” pointed out Haleyville Mayor Ken Sunseri, who is also

he chairman of the Haleyville Water and Sewer Board.  “Cutting off their water would actually create an unsanitary  situation for them.”
Municipalities face seasonal problems each year  with some customers not paying their bills, officials in Haleyville said.
“They will pay a reconnect fee in the fall to have it reconnected rather than just taking care of their bill,” Sunseri said. “It’s a problem.”
Bear Creek facing hardships

The Town of Bear Creek, which purchases water for its customers from the Upper Bear Creek Water Plant, is facing financial hardships over the issue.  In fact, the Bear Creek Town Council has faced such a high water bill during the pandemic over the past month  they  could only pay half of the bill at two separate council meetings.
On April 23, the council voted to pay $14,726.25 or half of the $29,452.50 bill due to the Upper Bear Creek Water Plant for water usage.
The town purchases water from Upper Bear Creek then sells it to it customers, Town Clerk Jamie Green explained.  “So when the customers don’t pay us, we can’t pay Upper Bear Creek.”
The council voted to pay the remaining $14,726.25 at their May 4, council meeting, but had to transfer $5,000 from the campground account in order to make the payment. As of May 4, the water account had $13,909.25, when the council was discussing paying the bill that was over $14,000. So, the council voted unanimously to transfer $5,000 from the campground account, which at that time contained $13,407.20, not counting funds in the account from credit card payments for camp rentals the previous weekend, Green noted.
Green stated that the town had seen a major increase in its water bill during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, water bills were due by the 20th of each month. On the 21st, a late fee of 20 percent of the balance was added to customers’ balances, according to town officials.
“Due to COVID, people being laid off work, and everybody getting unemployment right now, we have several who cannot pay their bills,” Green stated. “Therefore, we are not allowed to assess late fees.”
On an average month, the town of Bear Creek would have approximately $2,000 -$3,000 in unpaid water bills as part of the town’s bill.
In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to run rampant in the state, the town  had $3,146 in unpaid water bills, Green illustrated. That number jumped in April to $8,112.83, she added.
As of May 29, the town will be facing another high water bill of approximately $30,000, according to Green.
The water bills do not include fees owed by water customers, but also water leaks and water issues that often plague the town.
“A $29,000 water bill isn’t normal,” said Green.  



See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.
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