Residents of Helper will soon have more time to resolve delinquent utility accounts with the city, pending final action by the city council. Helper city officials discussed problems with its current policy at a council meeting on Dec. 7.
Councilmember John Jones explained that he became aware of problems with the city's policy when he received a delinquency notice for one of the accounts in his name. Jones added that the notice was sent because of a clerical error and the account was current.
Still, Jones explained that the notice was dated Nov. 18, was postmarked Nov. 19 and was received on Nov. 20. And according to the notice, utility services would be terminated on Nov. 20. As a result, Jones was given only a few hours warning before his utilities were scheduled to be shut off.
When he looked into the matter, Jones discovered the city had not established a policy for sending delinquency notices. At city hall, staff has followed a general policy of sending notices 48 hours in advance when the notice is addressed to a customer in town. When a customer's billing address is not in Helper, notice are mailed 72 hours in advance.
However, the policy currently in place is not an official policy. The city's ordinance states that services will only be terminated after a delinquency notice has been sent.
All customers are granted a grace period of five business days after their due date before the city considers terminating services. At that time, customers are billed a $5 late fee. Jones suggested granting an additional five calendar days from the date the notice is sent before the city discontinues services.
"I think there should be something in writing giving [customers] a definite amount of time," said Jones. He added that the five days should be counted from the date the delinquency notice is mailed.
Once the notice is received, the city still allows some latitude for its utility customers. Orlando Ochoa, the city's public works supervisor told the council that all disconnections are performed in the morning hours and never occur on Friday.
As a result, unless a customer truly cannot make a payment, utilities are generally left in service overnight and on weekends.
Customers who foresee trouble paying their bills may contact the city and request an extension.
Once an extension has been granted, the customer knows exactly how much time he or she will have before utilities will be disconnected. Residents who are granted an extension are not given a delinquency notice because the customers have already discussed the matter with the city.
If customers fail to notify the city in advance, they receive both a bill and a delinquency notice.
By sending two notices the city gives utility customers adequate notice that there is a bill which must be paid.
"All we're doing is making sure we don't have a mail problem," said Councilmember Bob Farrell. By adding five calendar days, customers with delinquent accounts are given adequate time to receive the notice before the shutoff date.
Recorder Jona Skerl said five days would be adequate for mailing and would still address outstanding balances in a timely manner.
The city recorder explained that shutoff dates should be scheduled before the start of the next billing cycle, generally about two weeks after the original due date.
Councilmember Dean Armstrong questioned whether it would be appropriate to send delinquency letters as certified mail. Skerl responded that there would be additional costs to sending an estimated 100 delinquency notices each month. If the city were to choose to send certified mail, it would need to increase past due fees to cover the additional cost.
The council agreed that in addition to establishing a firm time frame for utility disconnections, it would be appropriate to look into the way it handles late payments internally. The council instructed Gene Strate, the city's legal council, to draft a resolution to amend the ordinance. When the matter appears on the city's agenda next week, the council will also review the policies and procedures for handling utility payments and delinquency notices.
"We can't legislate mistakes away," said Armstrong. He explained that by reviewing its processes, the city may be able to limit the extent and impact of the mistakes.