Utilities helping customers during pandemic

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Cities, others offer breaks to customers having payment issues

Utilities are taking new steps to respond to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, as municipalities and local cooperatives gear up for increasing complications.

Steve Walensky, city administrator for Cassville, said he has developed a proposal to submit to the Cassville City Council on April 13. Cassville provides municipal water and sewer service.

“If the government in general – state and federal – feels that washing your hands is the primary defense [against coronavirus] it doesn’t make a lot of sense to shut off water,” Walensky said.

In the past, Walensky continued, he has offered customers a payment plan if they contact him when encountering problems. He hoped his latest proposal would prove more helpful.

“We’re all in this together,” he added.

At the Thursday Monett City Council meeting, the Monett City Council passed a new ordinance halting a disconnection of utility services for the next three months (April, May and June).

“In reaction to the pandemic and our encouraging people to shelter in place, we want to continue to provide utility service while at home,” said Monett City Administrator Dennis Pyle. “We want people to practice good hygiene, and for that they need running water.”

With benefits largely focused for residential customers, Pyle said he wanted to extend this to small businesses that may struggle with the loss of income and people staying at home. Council members agreed.

“We want to encourage people to continue making payments to the best of their ability,” Pyle said. “Charges will not be forgiven, just postponed.”

Partial payments will be accepted. Late fees of 10 percent will be applied only for the month in arrears and will not apply cumulatively. Payments will be cut down to 1/12th increments to stretch payments over a year’s time. Customers can also pay off the debt before the full 12 months.

Asked why the delinquent fee was not dropped altogether, Pyle said continuation would allow the city to keep its current practice in place.

“A certain number of people are always delinquent,” Pyle said. “This is for a certain number of people who will be affected by the pandemic. If you have a bill of $400 to $500, this way it becomes more bearable.”

Jillian Curtis, media coordinator for Liberty Utilities Empire District, which serves the Pierce City, Purdy, Freistatt and nearby rural customers, reported that on March 14, Liberty listed on social media that it was suspending disconnects until at least May 1. She said the company is still emphasizing safety for its workers.

“We have field employees who are still out working around the clock,” Curtis said. “They are taking extra precautions for their safety with social distancing. Our customer service representatives are using disinfectant and are wearing gloves when they handle money at our in-house facilities. We have glass in-between them and the customers who come in.”

Updates for Liberty are available on the Liberty Utilities Central page on Facebook.

Jon Davis, manager for marketing and public relations for Ozark Electric Cooperative, said the firm has a response strategy in place.

“We ask that if customers have been impacted by their health, lost wages or the COVID-19 virus, call us,” Davis said. “We work with people on a case-by-case basis. We’ll be happy to work with anyone affected.”

Customers should call Ozark Electric’s billing number at 417-466-2144. Ozark Electric serves nine counties from Stockton to Table Rock Lake.

Laura Holycross, with Barry Electric Cooperative, said Barry Electric will do a case-by-case review of situations presented.

“We don’t feel it’s in the best interest of our customers to issue a blanket policy at this time,” Holycross said. “Were evaluating the situation on a day-by-day basis.”

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