City to resume accepting partial utility payments, but disconnects will continue

Published 11:31 am Thursday, September 28, 2023

The City of LaGrange will continue its efforts to catch up on utility disconnects but will resume accepting partial payments.

Utilities Director Patrick Bowie addressed the issue during the LaGrange City Council work session on Tuesday after the mayor and council received complaints about increased utility disconnects and the department’s change to no longer accept partial payments for delinquent utility accounts.

Councilman Leon Childs questioned Bowie on the partial payments change, noting that the decision was not brought before the mayor and council and they did not vote on the change.

Bowie noted that disconnects for delinquent accounts have gotten very behind, partially because of employee turnover, but also because of the economy and the number of residents having difficulty paying their bills.

“Disconnects have been getting a little behind. It’s one of those difficult things that we deal with, as you can imagine, in the utility industry. Nobody likes to cut anybody’s utilities off because they can’t pay,” Bowie said. “But we just started looking at it, and we were getting pretty far behind.”

As of Tuesday morning, the city had 6,541 delinquent accounts, which represents about $2.7 million overdue. The delinquent accounts average about $410 that are past due, Bowie said.

Bowie said they have no intention of disconnecting every overdue account, but they are increasing the number of disconnects they do each month to catch up and get down to a lower past-due balance.

The city currently does about 200 to 220 disconnects per month. Bowie said they are trying to step that up to about 500 per month.

“Right now, we’re lucky if we get to everybody that’s over $500 past due and get them cut off with our manpower,” Bowie said.

Bowie said one of the issues is that when a resident gets cut off, customer service has been taking partial payments. Someone will come in and pay a smaller amount than what is owed, and often less than the amount that’s overdue, which puts them in a cycle of having a larger and larger bill.

“If you get a bill today, and you don’t pay that bill, you get another bill a month from now, if you don’t take pay that bill, then you’ll be eligible for disconnection,” Bowie said, noting that if the past due amount isn’t paid at that point it has a snowballing effect.

Bowie said that once someone is cut off, they are supposed to pay the full bill, but that hasn’t always been enforced.

“We’ve always tried to work with the customers and be compassionate and try to work with people. We always will continue to do that,” Bowie said, noting they work with people between jobs or give them time to make other arrangements.

“But there are a lot of people, unfortunately, that just don’t have a job. They don’t have the money, and we’re just letting them roll along and before long, they’re up to two, three, $4,000 bills and then nobody can help them at that point,” Bowie said.

Bowie said they have even been encouraged by some charitable organizations to cut people off sooner because they cannot help them when the balance gets too large.

Bowie noted that the city is writing off $200,000 to $300,000 in bad debt from unpaid utilities.

“That’s money that the other paying customers —and some of them are struggling as well and still pay the full bill— they’re subsidizing those people that are not paying their bills,” Bowie said.

Bowie said that customers who have been disconnected or have a disconnect pending only have to pay the past-due amount to continue service.

After some discussion, the council directed the utilities department to resume accepting partial payments, at least through the end of the year, but the department will continue the increased number of disconnects per month to help clear the backlog.