Town accepts funds for utility assistance

Published 6:21 pm Friday, November 12, 2021

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The Windsor Town Council unanimously adopted a resolution Nov. 9 accepting American Rescue Plan Act State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds from the state to provide municipal utility assistance to Windsor water customers who are in need of financial help and meet some general criteria.

In a memo to Mayor Glyn T. Willis and the council, Windsor Treasurer Cheryl McClanahan shared the background on the matter, and she read this information at the meeting prior to the council’s vote.

“The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development has initiated a

program for the relief of customers of municipal utilities using ARPA SLFRF funds,” she stated. “These funds would come directly from the commonwealth, and are not a part of those ARPA funds already earmarked for the Town of Windsor. The primary focus of these funds is the assistance of customers who have outstanding utility bills which are 60-plus days in arrears due to economic hardships related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

She noted that the total amount granted to the Town of Windsor is $8,129.51, and town staff have identified this amount of water bills in arrears to which these funds can be applied. She later estimated the number of customers who will benefit as 15 to 24.

“Therefore, a budget appropriation in the amount of $8,129.51 is required to accept and implement the funding,” she stated before alluding to the resolution to accept the funds and appropriate them to the Water Fund Operating Budget.

McClanahan explained to the council that these funds will help customers pay their utility bills but will not cover any late fees.

After Councilman J. Randy Carr asked if customers know they are responsible for any late fees, she confirmed they did, and then he also asked if the overall bill will continue to grow for those who cannot pay the late fees.

“We only started putting the late fees on in the last two bills,” she replied. “So on some of these older bills, they don’t have late fees on them. It’s only the last two months that we’ve put late fees on them.”

Vice Mayor Greg Willis asked if the recipients of the ARPA SLFRF money have to legitimize that they were impacted by COVID.

“On this fund, no,” McClanahan said.

“So we just arbitrarily apply to anybody that’s unpaid?” he asked.

“It’s from March 1, anybody who’s not paid, to August 31 of 2021,” she replied.

“I don’t like that,” he said.

Councilman George Stubbs also inquired about details of who will benefit from these funds, asking if they frequently faced such payment difficulties in the past.

Town Manager William Saunders offered more details on the criteria to be a recipient of the ARPA SLFRF monies.

“With the CARES Act they had to be individually certified, and they determined that a lot of the people that are having the most trouble during the pandemic are also the ones that would have the most trouble seeking out assistance and certifying the circumstances,” he said. “So what they did in this round was you basically certify a group based on criteria of the payment history, the bookend dates within where they became 60-plus days in arrears, so there is no individual criteria, but there’s a formula by which we establish the group of water customers that would qualify. So it’s not just the fact that they buy our water but that they found themselves 60-plus days in arrears within two specific dates that relate to the (pandemic).

“Is it possible that there’s somebody in that group that couldn’t certify themselves individually?” he continued. “I would say yes. Have the lion’s share of them had issues due to the pandemic based on the number of folks we’ve talked to? I would say yes.”

Councilwoman Kelly Blankenship asked if everyone who meets the criteria is receiving some help rather than just a percentage of them, and Saunders indicated the money will be prorated.

“So let’s say we have $12,000 worth of late payments, and we have $8,000 to apply to them — everybody gets two-third credit,” he said. “However far, the money goes in equal proportion to what’s late, but no fees, no application fees, no late fees, no interest is paid by this, only the actual water fees.”

McClanahan did add that if the town sees someone who is going through a particularly significant hardship, there is a rule that allows her to write a fee off.

“We are over the barrel as far as cutting customers off anymore, is that correct?” Vice Mayor Willis asked.

McClanahan replied, “We will be cutting customers off starting in January again. Right now, we’ve been short staffed, so we’ve not been able to do it.”

Summing up the opportunity presented by the ARPA SLFRF money, Mayor Willis said, “It’s an opportunity to help, and I guess for the good or the bad of it, there’s challenges when you extend help in that way, and in this case, the state’s providing that help, and we become an agent for them as they extend that help.”