Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Ark City leaders say it's a result of the economic times.
The city's water budget is $120,000 in debt, thanks - in part - to a growing number of late payments by city property owners. To close the financial gap and keep up with the city's own bills - officials say they needed to make some changes.
Recently, local lawmakers put in place a new ordinance that shortens the payment grace period and increases late fees for any Ark City resident who misses the due-date on their water bill.
Before the change, payment on a water bill could be almost 60 days late before action was taken against a property owner. That's now been shortened to only 5 days.
According to Ark City Administrator Lane Massey, here's how it works:
* Bills typically go out on the first day of every month and are received by the third day.
* Bills are due on the 16th of the month. On the 17th, a 5% late fee is assessed.
* If no payment is made by the 23rd of the month, the city begins disconnecting service.
* It costs $50 to disconnect... and another $50 to reconnect when the bill is finally paid.
For some property owners, the change caught them off guard.
"I don't know how I'm going to pay this," said Eugene Jackson. He showed us his water bill, for which he owed about $46.
Although Jackson says he always pays his bills on time, Ark City said he was late on this month's payment. The city shut his water off Tuesday morning, and told him it would cost $150 to get it turned back on.
Jackson is on disability. He says he can't afford the increased penalties.
Mayor Mel Kuhn says the city is willing to work with anybody who asks for assistance. But he says they should ask for help before their water is turned off.
"We want to keep the population safe and prospering," said Kuhn. "But at the same time we have an infrastructure to take care of that costs a lot of money."
Kuhn says water payments go to support pumping wells, pipe maintenance, and the overall water system.
City leaders advertised the policy change in the weeks before this billing cycle, and Kuhn says it was discussed in public meetings. The new penalties are listed at the bottom of every bill.
For those who pay their bills on time, Kuhn and Massey say the change has no effect.
Ark City resident Shirley Dillon also had her water shut off. She says the new policies don't take into account the difficulties faced by many of the city's residents.
"This is unfair to older people," Dillon said. "It's hard on the poor and the handicapped."
Massey says the number of shut-off notices sent out jumped from around 200 a month to about 300 with this billing cycle. However, he says most who received notices quickly paid their bills.
A town hall meeting is scheduled for tonight at 7:00 in Ark City. Jackson and Dillon say they will attend. Kuhn and Massey expect a large crowd, and anticipate the water bill issue will be on the minds of everybody.