Paulina Pineda Arizona Republic – #chandler-az
Nearly 40,000 people in the Phoenix area are behind on utility bills, according to cities.
The 38,840 residential and commercial customers across the Valley owed about $14 million in past-due water, sewer, solid waste and other city fees as of Sept. 1.
Residential customers make up the bulk of delinquent accounts.
The number of delinquent customers isn’t significantly higher than before the novel coronavirus pandemic — some cities actually reported fewer delinquent accounts than the same time last year — but the amount owed and the length of time accounts have remained in the red has climbed, municipal utility officials said.
Almost all metro Phoenix cities halted water and other utility shutoffs in March, although past-due balances continued to accumulate.
Now, as the money owed continues to rise, at least two Valley cities will reinstate disconnections as a means to collect on bills.
Mesa, which has offered a utility assistance program for months and will continue to work with customers to set up payment plans, will reinstate disconnections on Oct. 1.
Scottsdale will follow suit in November.
Other cities are holding off for now but encouraging customers to reach out for assistance so that they can chip away at the amount owed before disconnections resume.
“No one really wants to be the first person to start disconnecting,” said Dawn Lang, Chandler’s management services director. However, she said at some point cities will have to recoup some of the money owed or face long-term impacts on water services.
Among the Valley’s two largest electric providers, Arizona Public Service will halt power shutoffs through the end of the year while Salt River Project will resume shut-offs on Oct. 1 if customers don’t follow through on repayment plans spread over eight months.
Mesa, Scottsdale look to recoup funds
Nearly 9,240 delinquent household utility customers in Mesa owed a total of about $3.8 million as of Sept. 1, according to spokesperson Kevin Christopher. Mesa bills customers for water, sewer, solid waste, gas and, in some cases, electric.
Beyond residential, 350 commercial accounts owed $551,654, he said.
The city suspended disconnections on March 9 but will resume enforcement for nonpayment on Oct. 1. Not all of the past-due customers are on the brink of shut-off as accounts must be 15 or more days past due with a balance greater than $150before the city moves to disconnect.
Christopher said utility employees are reaching out to the customers with past due accounts to inform them of three options they must pursue by Oct. 1 to avoid having services turned off:
make a payment.
make a payment arrangement.
apply for utility assistance.
“We’re very concerned about what’s going to happen come Oct. 1 and into the fall as we have to start shutting off utilities, as SRP starts shutting off the power,” City Manager Chris Brady has told The Arizona Republic.
Brady said the city would rather residents come in for aid or a payment plan, but he said a large number won’t do anything until their accounts are actually shut off.
Mesa set aside $8 million in federal coronavirus relief aid to provide utility assistance to residents but so far little of the money has been disbursed. The city expects applications for assistance to increase as residents face looming payment deadlines.
MORE:Several Mesa COVID-19 programs see success, but residents have so far been slow to apply for city aid
Residents can apply for help through Mesa Community Action Network.
Scottsdale will reinstate disconnections on Nov. 1 on accounts that have a past due balance for more than two billing cycles.
The city suspended disconnections in March and waived late fees during the public health crisis.
There were 1,422 delinquent residential accounts owing $335,581 and 160 commercial accounts owing about $547,952 as of Sept. 1, said spokesperson Kelly Corsette.
Scottsdale is offering financial assistance to customers who have been impacted by the pandemic. City employees are connecting customers seeking assistance to the city’s Human Services Vista Program and nonprofits for help.
Customers who don’t qualify for aid can set up payment plans, Corsette said.
Avondale, one of the only Valley cities that did not suspend water shut-offs during the pandemic, has been working with customers to set up payment arrangements. The city is referring struggling residents to the city’s Neighborhood and Family Services Department for aid, the city said.
Avondale had 116 delinquent residential accounts and 11 commercial accounts that owed around $49,100 as of Sept. 1.
No timeline for shut-offs in other cities
Other Valley cities have not set dates to resume disconnections.
Many are encouraging customers to reach out to work out a payment plan. City employees are helping connect customers with financial hardships because of the pandemic to nonprofits and other agencies that can provide aid.
Chandler is starting to send soft notices to customers whose balance is more than $150 and two months overdue to encourage them to contact the city before the situation worsens.
Chandler had 4,557 household accounts and 171 commercial accounts with overdue balance totaling $1.5 million as of Sept. 1, according to the city’s Utility Services Division.
Utility employees are working with the city’s Neighborhood Resources Department to provide customers with information on financial assistance. Staff also is working with customers to establish flexible payment plans.
“We certainly want to be very sensitive to what’s happening with our residents in our community,” Lang said. “We’re looking for ways of trying to help.”
Gilbert similarly is reaching out to customers to encourage minimum payments, if possible, so that the amount owed doesn’t keep growing. The town had 1,134 residential accounts eligible for disconnection as of Sept. 1 and customers owed anywhere from $200 to $1,000, said spokesperson Jennifer Harrison.
Harrison said town officials are working to determine when normal operations will resume. Disconnections likely will resume in late fall but the town will be flexible and offer payment plans, she said.
In Surprise, utility employees will work with customers to set up payment plans when shut-offs resume. A date for when that will happen hasn’t yet been set.
“This practice is really no different than how the city of Surprise has always worked with customers,” Aisha Alexander, a city spokesperson, said. “As long as our customers work with us, we work with them and won’t disconnect their water service.”
The city recently set aside $15,000 in coronavirus relief funding to provide water utility assistance to customers.
Glendale does not plan to begin disconnecting water services on the nearly 2,000 delinquent residential accounts until temperatures cool, said spokesperson Jay Crandall. The city actively contacting customers to collect payment, however, and working to establish payment plans before disconnections resume, he said.
The city’s Water Services Department set aside $50,000 for utility assistance payments for qualified customers and city employees are helping connect customers to other help, Crandall said.
Phoenix will halt disconnections for some customers permanently
Phoenix is permanently eliminating water shut-offs for single-family residential customers.
The city had temporarily halted disconnections in March and has been working with customers to arrange payment plans.
Customers who couldn’t be reached or didn’t agree to a plan were put on a low-flow plan that provides enough water for basic sanitation and cooking.
The low-flow plan grew out of a water equity initiative led by a citizen’s advisory board and the city had begun implementing the plan even before the pandemic, said spokesperson Athena Sanchez.