Residents with past due utility accounts to get relief

Published 5:58 pm Thursday, November 18, 2021

City residents with utility bills more than 60 days past due as of Aug. 31 will get a lifeline thanks to the third phase of federal COVID-19 relief money.

Interim Director of Public Utilities Paul Retel told City Council at its Nov. 17 meeting that the city will receive nearly $1.3 million in American Recovery Plan Act money to provide help for residents.

Cities received money for this phase based on past due amounts their residents owed as of the end of August and must distribute the money by Feb. 28. They have until March 31 to return any unused portion.

Eligibility for the program is slightly different from previous phases. Unlike previous phases where industrial and commercial accounts were eligible, only residential customers will be eligible in this phase, according to the rules of the ARPA money. They will be applied only to those with past due accounts.

Grant rules say the past due amount implies that the resident faced an economic hardship due to COVID-19. The assistance will be applied directly to people’s accounts.

“Once we receive the grant money, staff will be taking a look at each individual account,” Retel said, “and assistance will be applied directly to the customer accounts.”

Customer service representatives from Public Utilities will look at the records in the billing system to find anyone past due over 60 days as of Aug. 31. Residents will get a note on their bill saying assistance has been applied to it.

To determine how much assistance each customer will get, Retel said it is a “rough formula” that will take a customer’s past due balance over 60 days, divide it by all residential past-due amounts over 60 days and then multiply it by the amount the city received to determine how much money will be applied to each account.

Residents who received assistance in Phase 2, Retel said, are still eligible for help in Phase 3.

“Still (there is) a good amount of money out there to assist our customers with,” Retel said. “Phase 2 … went very well, didn’t have to return any money there, and I would expect we would do the same here and not have to return any funds with this.”

In the program’s first phase from Aug. 24 to Dec. 11, 2020, the city had $500,000 in available money to distribute from the CARES Act. The city received 244 applications and approved 160, providing $74,373 in assistance.

In the second phase, which ran from Dec. 7, 2020, until Sept. 7, the city had nearly $1.4 million at its disposal. It granted 2,030 of the 2,975 applications it received, with the average amount of assistance $678.28.

“The success story, really, is that all of that grant funding that we received was distributed,” Retel said. “Every dime went to our customers to assist with their utility bills.”

In phase two, customers had to answer between one and nine questions about how they were affected by the coronavirus pandemic to determine their eligibility for the money.

But this time, there won’t be any questions for people to answer. It will just take looking at a customer’s bill to see if they were at least 60 days past due at the end of August.

Councilman Roger Fawcett said he doesn’t want to see any money left over when this phase of the program ends.

“My hope is maybe we can reach some of those really underserved customers and homes that are out there,” Fawcett said, “to relieve some of their debt so they can continue to get the good service we have here in Suffolk.”