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Helped by assistance programs, customers make progress on outstanding utility balances

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

LANDIS — While municipalities across the state, especially small towns with their own utility systems, once feared a significant impact to their budgets following a monthslong cutoff prohibition, local officials credit additional resources and payment plans provided amidst the pandemic with alleviating those concerns.

Executive Order 142, established by Gov. Roy Cooper, prevented municipalities from executing utility disconnections and charging late fees or penalties for nonpayment due to the pandemic. That order expired on July 29, but municipalities have since been required to allow customers at least six months to pay off any outstanding balances accrued from March through July.

Landis was once among the small towns that feared the impact of an increasing list of customers on their “cutoff” list for non-payment would hurt the next fiscal year budget. By the end of April, the town reported 444 accounts that were in arrears for their monthly payments, which amounted to a deficit of about $147,000 in the town’s accounts receivable.

While Landis operates its electric service independently, the town purchases water from Kannapolis. Salisbury-Rowan Utilities handles the sewage. Landis has a service population of a little more than 3,000 people, with 1,551 water connections.

But Landis Finance Officer Diane Seaford said by the end of August, 461 of the 679 customers who were sent a payment plan offer letter participated. And as of last week, 154 people remain on the six-month “COVID” payment plan. Each plan includes payments accrued through the cutoff prohibition period as well as customers’ normal monthly cost.

The good news is those folks are paying regularly, Seaford said, with some going “above and beyond.”

“Most of our folks have been good about making their payments or reaching out for assistance,” she said. “That says that our community is healing and, hopefully, going back to work.”

But there are still folks who have fallen too far behind to make up the difference, with 114 customers seeing their utilities shutoff last week due to nonpayment. For the town, those customers mean a delinquent amount of $23,000.

As the holiday season approaches, Seaford said, she thanks customers for making those payments because this season is already a stressful time for many households and could compound problems for those who are behind. Payments must be paid before their service can be reconnected, which means the town loses money when those customers are no longer.

Seaford doesn’t anticipate a significant negative hit to Landis’ budget as a result of the fallout from COVID-19-related changes to utility services. But as a finance officer, she’s still concerned about things like late fees not being collected or penalties accrued for shutoffs. In Landis, that amounts to $44,733 the town lost.

With the expiration of the executive order, late fees can now be charged as long as they’re not for any of the months during the moratorium period.

The 2020-21 town budget in Landis was already budgeted conservatively this year. Landis’ water fund totals $1.03 million, which is a 7.55% decrease from the 2019-20 fiscal year. That amounts to a $46,000 decrease in collections on the sale of water as well as the loss of Parkdale Mills, which was the town’s largest and longest-standing industrial customer.

Salisbury Finance Director Shannon Moore said Salisbury-Rowan Utilities currently has more than 400 COVID payment plan arrangements with customers, which amounts to less than 5% of SRU’s total water connections. Additionally, the vast majority of those customers are current on their plans.

“It’s much better than it was two months ago,” she said.

SRU supplies water for Salisbury, Spencer, East Spencer, Granite Quarry, China Grove and Rockwell, which includes a service population of around 52,000 people and more than 19,000 water connections, according to the Salisbury 2020-21 approved budget.

The utilities system currently contributes about $3.52 million, or 13.5%, to Salisbury’s general fund, which helps carry out the city’s administrative costs.

Overall, Moore does not foresee any financial impact to the city’s next fiscal year budget. However, more information will be gathered once the payment plans expire in January, she said.

She credits the steady decline in outstanding amounts to staff working closer and making more contact with customers to make payments on a regular basis. CARES Act funding, the state’s HOPE funds, Rowan Helping Ministries and the newly created “Share 2 Care” program also have played a big role in bringing those balances down, she said.

The “Share 2 Care” program was born out of concern from city council members and staff after they rescinded Salisbury’s moratorium on Aug. 5 and outstanding balances continued to rise. That initiative provides assistance for water and sewer payments and is not exclusively for those financially impacted by COVID-19.

The “Share 2 Care” fund is donation-driven and disbursed through Rowan Helping Ministries. Moore said as of this week, $1,400 has been received, with donations ranging from $5 to $200.

Moore said the city will continue to monitor the fund as donations roll in and will process a check in early December for Rowan Helping Ministries to disperse. The fund will then be monitored monthly with more checks processed as the fund reaches $1,000.

Salisbury Communications Director Linda McElroy said detachable flyers will be included in the city’s December “The Lamplighter” newsletter to encourage donations, particularly among people looking to help during the holiday season or receive tax deductions with next year’s tax filings.

People can find the donation slip on the city’s website by visiting salisburync.gov/Government/Communications/Newsroom and looking for the announcement about the “Share 2 Care” program. Those interested can also visit the city’s Customer Service, located at 1415 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.

Additionally, donations can be made by mailing a check to P.O. Box 479, Salisbury, NC 28144, with “Share 2 Care” written on the memo line.

Other resources are available as well. Rowan Helping Ministries is also responsible for dispersing funds from the state’s Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions, or HOPE, program. To date, the HOPE program has helped around 110 people in the county, which exhausted the $437,000 Rowan County received from the state, said Rowan Helping Ministries Executive Director Kyna Grubb.

HOPE funds can be used to pay multiple months of utilities and/or rent payments.

In addition to those who have been helped, 591 households in Rowan County have applied for the grant and are awaiting assistance. Grubb said she anticipates receiving more information next week about whether the county will receive more funding. If fully funded, the county could provide up to $1.2 million in HOPE funds. The program is set to expire by the end of December, unless state officials or lawmakers provide additional funds.

In the meantime, Grubb said, applicants can rest assured that RHM will reach out to them if they’re eligible to receive financial assistance through that program. Applications are processed on first-come, first-served basis.

Though applications for the HOPE program in Rowan County are currently closed, the RHM is still helping locals by using their normal crisis donor dollars for any financial crises, not just those related to the pandemic. As of Nov. 1, Grubb said RHM has provided $283,000 worth of assistance, including HOPE funds.

Since the Oct. 20 city council meeting, when the “Share 2 Care” program was established, Grubb said Rowan Helping Ministries has assisted 55 households with utilities payments, which totals $15,913. Since January, Rowan Helping Ministries has assisted 755 households, with $581,607 worth of financial assistance for rent, utilities and medications expenses.

And with unprecedented government support to help, more funding is available, she said.

“The need is there,” she said. “If they’re experiencing a financial crisis, there are resources.”

Anyone who has a financial crisis and is facing eviction or utility shutoff can apply for assistance at rowanhelpingministries.org. If a household has already applied for assistance through the HOPE program, they do not need to complete the RHM application, Grubb said.

Other resources in the community include the Rowan County United Way and the local Salvation Army.

“(These programs) are making a huge difference in the lives of these folks,” Seaford said. “If you need assistance, reach out for it. Find a way to make payments. We don’t want folks disconnected during the holiday season, but we also can’t afford to delay payments right now either.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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