Council OKs deferments on utility payments


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, February 16, 2018

Elizabeth City utility customers on payment plans can now get a one-month deferment on those payments, thanks to a decision by City Council in the wake of last month's high utility bills.

Council unanimously approved the deferments on Monday after city officials had first sketched out the idea at councilors’ retreat in Kitty Hawk last week.

The deferments will allow customers on payment plans to sign an addendum to their agreements that will let them delay making a payment by one month. Those customers will still need to pay their normal monthly utility bills — and they'll have to resume payments as normal the following month.

Council granted the deferments because customers' utility costs were especially high last month during what City Manager Rich Olson described as the city’s “extreme amount of cold weather.” The cold weather drove bills higher because it took a lot more power to keep homes warm.

Many customers' December-January bills weren't just high because of usage, however. The city also read meters later than it normally does, meaning some customers' bills charged them for as many as 38 days’ usage at once. The city's goal is to not bill people for more than 32 days at once, according to Olson, but holidays and extreme weather left city workers with fewer opportunities to read meters, he said.

Notably, icy conditions shut down public offices for several days last month.

Those higher bills put extra pressure on some 1,700 city customers who are paying off back balances under “hardship agreements.” The city offered those last year because of a failed billing software conversion that threw bills off schedule and left many customers with large back balances.

Olson acknowledged Monday that recent large bills are an added hardship for customers with the hardship agreements. However, he said the city is offering to defer only one of their payments. Deferring a payment is not the same as forgiving it, and so customers will still ultimately have to pay off the original agreement amounts.

A copy of the deferment form shows it’s a simple, one-page form requiring a customer’s signature.

The additional deferment forms are needed, Olson explained at last week’s retreat, because hardship agreements don't provide for any deferments. That means the city would be choosing not to enforce the agreements if it granted a deferment — possibly giving legal grounds to challenge and invalidate the agreements, he said. The deferment forms ensure the agreements are still binding, he said.

Notably, the city also allows customers to request a few days' extension on their bills. City councilors agreed, however, that those extensions would be too short to do much good for customers on payment plans.