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Independence utility ratepayers get some relief

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

The city of Independence and the Community Services League will partner to use the city’s planned $2.2 million of federal CARES Act funds for utility ratepayer assistance. 

The city and CSL already have a pair of utility assistance programs, and Independence has about $2 million worth of delinquent utility payments, Mayor Eileen Weir said. The partnership to use CARES funds will work similarly to existing programs but with more urgency, she said, as CARES funds must be spent or under contract by the end of the year. Jackson County has approved Independence’s CARES spending plan for $6.9 million overall. 

“This is the best way to get off the sidelines and into the community,” Weir said. “What we’re trying to avoid is eviction. If they can’t pay the utility bill, that’s an indication they have other issues they’re dealing with. This will take one worry off the shoulders of these families.”

Applications for the utility assistance program with CARES funds opened Thursday at the website cslhousing.org. The money can be used for delinquent bills between March 1 and Aug. 31. The city says the review process will not begin until after the Labor Day holiday and may take three to four weeks weeks before approved funds get disbursed.

“CSL doesn’t pay the bill for you; they do the vetting process,” Weir said. “That’s an established system. They research, try to figure out who needs assistance, then refer them to us.”

Independence initially hoped to get about $23 million in CARES funds from the county, planning to use $9 million of that toward ratepayer assistance. 

Independence owns three utilities – electric, water and sewer. Weir said about 11 percent of the city’s utility customers, more than 6,000 accounts, are behind on payments. Naturally, that’s more than when the pandemic started mid-March, but Weir said the number has dipped since the city resumed shutoffs for nonpayment in July 15. Earlier in the summer, the delinquent payment total neared $4 million.

The city, like many municipalities and private utility companies, waived late fees and suspended utility shutoffs for nonpayments when the pandemic began to hit hard in mid-March. Though Independence resumed shutoffs, it has allowed customers to arrange repayment plans. Credit card and online payment fees continue to be waived.

Weir said the grace periods for some utility customers have been extended from the normal four months to six months, allowing more time to make payment arrangements. But some people have not made arrangements. The mayor said she urges such utility customers to “Call us, and let’s do our best work something out,” adding that it’s in the best interest of both parties.

The city’s full spending plan for CARES funds includes the $2.2 million for ratepayer assistance; about $2.14 million for public health such as medical and protective supplies, disinfection and quarantining individuals; $1.49 million for paid sick, family and medical leave and social distancing precautions; $926,000 for public testing; and nearly $91,000 for public safety payroll expenses. 

Funds must go toward unanticipated expenses incurred because of the pandemic.