The City of Lebanon will resume locking off water supplies to customers who are significantly overdue on their utility payments if they do not contact the city to make payment arrangements.
The city has not proceeded with lock-offs since the COVID-19 pandemic began this spring. It was decided that it was in the interest of public health to not reduce access to clean water when hand washing was such a major part of reducing the spread of this coronavirus.
Some residential customers have accrued substantial water bills in the past six months. City finance director Matt Apken told the city council at its Sept. 9 session that 379 accounts are currently past due with a total past due amount of approximately $83,000. That amount has grown by about $10,000 in the past month, Apken said.
The City of Lebanon bills about $944,000 in water payments monthly.
Following a discussion of this issue at its August public session, the council directed Apken to reach out to customers who were past due to encourage them to make payment arrangements. Apken told the council that letters were sent to all of these accounts but it took time to set up a system for making phone calls. These calls to residents will begin this month.
“I have reached out to other cities and I can tell you that every city that I talked to has either restarted doing their lock-offs or has plans to do so by the beginning of October. That includes Salem, Albany, Sweet Home, Cottage Grove,” Apken said, adding that most of the cities are being flexible with payment options to help customers avoid any interruption of service.
Councilors Karin Stauder and Rebecca Grizzle said they were in favor of resuming lock-offs for residential customers who are past due and do not make any attempt to work with the city on a repayment plan.
“Putting COVID aside, it’s never pleasant when this has to happen,” Stauder said.
Grizzle believes it is the city’s responsibility to not let these accounts grow any more delinquent.
“I had people contact me encouraging us to move forward. I don’t think it’s in anybody’s interest for us to continue to bury people deeper, especially if we can help you if you’ll contact us,” Grizzle said.
Councilor Michelle Steinhebel continued to oppose locking off residential accounts due to the public health interest during the pandemic.
“I understand I’m going to be in the minority and I certainly understand the city’s position and our responsibility to our residents,” Steinhebel said.
Councilor Robert Furlow shared Steinhebel’s view.
“I’m very concerned about shutting off water in the midst of an epidemic when we want people to be washing their hands,” Furlow said. “If they make any attempt at all … I want them not to have their water shut off.”
Mayor Paul Aziz sided with Grizzle and Stauder, but asked staff to be as flexible as possible with customers.
“We’re concerned with the people and not having water. We want to make sure we do everything possible to help them, whether it’s maybe a fee gets dropped or whatever it is that we can help them out,” Aziz said.
With the city set to resume lock-offs, Steinhebel asked Apken what the process will be for customers who are locked off. Will these customers have to bring their accounts current to resume service?
“They would make some payment, likely not the whole thing, but then they would set up a payment plan and going forward they would continue to make that payment plus their current bill. My hope is that if anyone is locked off it would be a very short period of time for them to figure it out,” Apken said.
Councilors Wayne Rieskamp and Jason Bolen were not in attendance at the virtual session. Bolen was unable to attend due to his responsibilities with the Lebanon Fire District.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Councilor Bolen is quite busy with the fires that are going on all around us and I just want to send out a big, big thank you to the Lebanon Fire District and the hard work that they are doing,” Aziz said.
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