Residents, municipalities still struggle with unpaid utility, tax bills

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The moratoriums Chatham County placed on water service disconnections and delinquent tax collections ended Monday, one week after N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper announced the creation of three new state programs geared toward helping residents and municipalities with funding for rent and utilities.

But while the county and its municipalities are working with delinquent customers on payment plans, not all of Chatham’s systems may be able to take advantage of Cooper’s programs.

Here’s a summary of where things stand:

Chatham’s status

Early on during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cooper’s Executive Order 142 placed a statewide moratorium on residential utility customer disconnections. That ended July 29, but Chatham decided to suspend all water service disconnections through Aug. 31.

On Aug. 14, Chatham County Utilities collections staff sent letters to delinquent customers informing them of the Aug. 31 deadline, providing information about setting up a payment plan not to exceed six months. The county is waiving late fees through the Aug. 31 date, but asking customers to pay past due and current account balances. Delinquent customers can contact the Chatham County Utilities Department at watershop@chathamnc.org or 919-542-8270 to set up a payment plan that will require equal monthly payments across six months.

In addition, collections on all delinquent taxes have been on hold since March 16. In a statement released last week, the county said present use parcels that have been mailed two letters prior to March 16th and have not returned the required documentation will be removed from the deferral program.

The total amount of past due taxes owed in Chatham is $2,560,149.28, of which $1,031,577.90 is due for 2019 taxes.

As far as utilities, the Chatham County system has about 10,200 active water accounts (the county does not provide sewer), according to Tracey Wilkie, collections supervisor for the county. At the end of July, about 2.3% — 235 users — were in default with a total amount due of $38,000. By Friday, the number of past-due balances had dropped 189 — a total of $26,638 — with only two people signed up for a payment plan so far.

In July, the town of Pittsboro had about 74 of its 2,034 customers with past due accounts, equaling about $9,762. On Friday, Pittsboro’s Town Manager Chris Kennedy confirmed the number of customers with past due balances has remained the same, but the total amount due has grown to $14,429.43. Of that amount, $2,151.93 is for a defunct business that is no longer solvent.

The town is working with customers to set up payment plans. Those with balances of less than $500 will have six months to repay and those over $500 will have 12 months. To date, only two customers signed up for the payment plan.

The town of Siler City has the largest amount of payments due to the system, but that situation has improved slightly over the past month. In July, 337 of the town’s 3,705 users were past-due in their payments — a total of $72,039. As of Friday, those numbers were reduced to 263 utility accounts totaling $66,752.39, according to Siler City Town Manager Roy Lynch. The town has only six accounts signed up for its six-month repayment plan so far.

In July, 32 of Goldston’s 49 utility accounts were in past-due status, with a total of $12,487 due to the Goldston-Gulf Sanitary District. According to Goldston Mayor Tim Cunnup, that number of past-due accounts has risen to 36, with a total due to the district of $13,640. There are no plans for repayment as of Monday.

Gov. Cooper’s program

Meanwhile, the utility assistance programs announced by Cooper last week are designed to “work together to help people avoid eviction and pay their bills.”

“COVID-19 has strained family finances across North Carolina, and many people are struggling to make ends meet,” Cooper said in statement. “People need a safe, stable place to call home, especially during this pandemic, and we must help keep people in their homes and keep their utilities on while our economy recovers.”

About half of the funding — $94 million — will be disbursed by the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR) for rental and utility payments for those in need via local community agencies. Funding for the program comes from the federal Community Development Block Grant – Coronavirus and remaining funding from the CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund.

Another $53 million will be distributed for those experiencing homelessness or face immediate risk of homelessness. The program will work similarly as the rent and utility funding, coordinating with local community agencies to distribute the money. The program will be managed by the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

Cooper’s release said that the hope is that eligible community agencies will be able to assist residents efficiently. When a resident applies, the agency will then determine which program the person is eligible and help complete the applications more quickly.

“Families in crisis don’t have time to spare, and our state agencies are coordinating a plan to make it easier for people to get the support they need,” Cooper's release said.

“During this crisis, it is more important than ever that government work smarter and faster to deliver relief to people facing eviction and utility disconnection. NCORR is proud to be partnering across agencies to make the most of federal funds in North Carolina,” said Chief Operating Officer Laura Hogshead.

The final program is geared toward helping smaller towns and counties to assist local governments in supporting residents’ access to food, internet access and COVID testing in addition to support with rent and utility payments. The $28 million in federal funding will be administered as a Community Development Block Grant through the N.C. Dept. of Commerce. Eligible communities include towns under 50,000 residents and counties under 200,000 residents, which includes all of Chatham County. The portal to apply for this grant is already open.

“The Commerce Department has a long history of collaborating with our local government partners to administer federal resources during times of crisis,” said Commerce Secretary Anthony Copeland. “As a ready conduit for vital assistance to North Carolina communities, our CDBG program has proven its value many times over.”

Chatham evaluating grant

Only one of the county’s utility systems seems poised to take advantage of the CDBG-COVID grant available for smaller communities. For several systems, the costs incurred in applying for the grant and paying a grant administrator outweigh the benefits they could receive from the grant.

Chatham County Manager Dan LaMontagne said the county is still “considering and will further evaluate the need” to apply for the CDBG-COVID grant.

“We are hopeful that most customers with past due balances as a result of COVID-19 will be able to pay their balances off in time,” LaMontagne said.

Chris Kennedy, Pittsboro’s town manager said, it is unlikely the town would apply for the state’s CDBG-COVID grant. The grant requires a grant administrator, which is an added cost.

“Securing the services of a CDBG administrator and working with them to compile the necessary paperwork could nearly be equal in terms of cost to the amount of arrears we have on the utility bills,” Kennedy said.

While the district is still considering its options, it is unlikely the Goldston-Gulf Sanitary District will consider applying for the grant as the costs to apply for the grant, similarly to Pittsboro, would likely not be cost effective.

Only Siler City, with the greatest financial burden due to non-payment of utility accounts, seems poised to take advantage of the grant. Lynch said the town is planning to apply for the CDBG-COVID grant and the staff will be working on it this week. This is likely because not only does the rate of investment make sense for the amount owed to the town, but the town already has several other CDBG grants, which means it already has the infrastructure in place to manage another one.

As the pandemic continues, the full economic toll on the residents and the local economies is still being measured. A group of more than 30 social justice, environmental, labor, and community groups, including the North Carolina Council of Churches, the North Carolina Housing Coalition, the N.C. Justice Center, are asking legislative leaders to do more.

The group sent a letter to legislative leadership this week asking the General Assembly to allocate $400 million from the CARES Act and other sources such as the Rainy Day Fund to help cover unpaid utility bills for low-income residents. The General Assembly goes back into session this week. If and how it decides to allocate the remaining CARES Act funding remains to be seen.

Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@chathamnr.com.

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