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Economy stumbles and utilities take a hit

Mike Genet
mike.genet@examiner.net

At its peak, the city of Independence accumulated about $4 million in outstanding utility payments since the beginning of March.

That figure has since dipped to about $3 million, but Mayor Eileen Weir said she knows some ratepayers will still need help for months. So, no matter what Independence ultimately receives in federal CARES Act funds through Jackson County, a healthy portion of it will go toward ratepayer assistance.

The CARES Act money is for one-time, COVID-related costs incurred by local and state governments. The city proposed receiving $23.19 million from the county for, among other things, PPE costs, police overtime and $9 million in utility payment assistance. Another request of $10 million is for regional transit.

Weir said she believes the city will receive something close to the $10.19 million total that county officials have initially proposed, and it’s safe to say a portion will be used to help ratepayers.

“Unemployment is still high; nothing has really changed there,” Weir said, and before long individual federal unempoyment assistance will end. “We’ll have a clearer picture by Aug. 1 of what needs are out there.”

Many cities and private utility companies waived late fees and suspended shutoffs for nonpayment for at least some time during the pandemic, and in some cases still have that suspension in place, knowing they will take at least a temporary budget hit.

Independence, the only city in Jackson County that has three city-owned utilities, has already announced it will resume non-payment shutoffs and late fees starting July 15. The city will continue to waive credit card and online payment fees until further notice.

“We absolutely knew that by suspending shutoffs… we would take a hit,” Weir said. “Anytime we’ve done that hot and cold-weather days, there’s an effect to that.”

Of the $3 million in outstanding utility payments, about nearly two-thirds of that (64 percent) is from electric bills, 19 percent is from sewer bills and 17 percent from water bills.

Weir said the city gave more than a month’s notice on resuming shutoffs to give ratepayers a chance to catch up or set up payment programs. Already, the dip shows some catch-up. And perhaps, the mayor surmises, simply rediscovering some daily and weekly normalcy helps.

“People are starting to get caught up,” Weir said. “We were so out of sync with your normal routine that some people might have forgotten to pay. Things were so upside down.

“We collect about 99.9 percent of what we bill. Once people understand that they need to get caught up, they do. I was concerned about (resuming possible shutoffs) during the peak season, but we’re giving people time to make those arrangements.

“We don’t want to shut off. It’s like repossessing a car; the bank doesn’t want the car but the money.”

The city works with Community Services League on a pair of utility assistance programs.

The Rate Assistance Program (IRAP) helps pay 50 percent of electric bills for qualified elderly or disabled customers. IShare is emergency assistance for electric, water or gas bills.

“They help us by qualifying the people who need assistance,” Weir said of CSL. “We do the accounting part.

“The (Public Utilities Advisory Board) has encouraged us to put more into utility assistance funds, IRAP and Ishare.”

In Blue Springs, Assistant City Administrator Christine Cates estimates the city is down about $100,000 on delinquent water and sewer bills, as well as below-average water usage. The city will have a better picture over the next month, she says, when accounts reach 60-days-plus past due.

“The impact to the budget will be to delay capital improvement projects until we can determine what adequate funding is available,” Cates said.

Under the county’s initial distribution proposal, Blue Springs would receive $4.87 million in CARES funds. Blue Springs has already received $100,000 in reimbursement for PPE, supplies and equipment for the pandemic response, and Cates said the city will develop a list of other spending priorities when county officials approve CARES funds distribution.