Concerns considered by council on penalties

Jul. 13, 2013 @ 06:03 PM

One customer and multiple Henderson City Council members agree there are some glitches in utility billing.

In the past 18 months, city and utility administrators worked on accounts either going unpaid or being paid tardy. But sometimes that has caused harsh treatment, according to resident Anthony Jones.

About 15 months ago, numerous customers in a downtown area of Henderson were disconnected. It stirred hard feelings. The city council responded with modified new deposit requirements, fees and a grace period rule as a result.

Earlier this year, at the recommendation of city manager Ray Griffin, the council reversed field on the lower deposit amount, effectively doubling to $150 for city residential customers and $200 for those outside city limits as originally proposed in 2012.

The grace period was shortened to seven calendar days instead of 10 business days.

It was the shortened grace period that caught Jones off guard last month when it took effect. He was a day late on the shortened grace period, and his water and sewer services cut off on the seventh day, he said.

“It certainly doesn’t say much about this town being friendly toward its citizens,” Jones said. “They say they want to treat everyone the same, so they’ll treat everyone badly. The city is just mean spirited.”

Jones said he was treated with friendly respect by utility employees. They explained his situation and helped get his reconnection.

He said the rules are harsh. And he let his views be known to the council on Monday.

“We have an economically troubled area, and we are going to be this aggressive on collection of water bills?” he asked them. “This is insane.”

Jones said the cash amount was not a big deal, but on principle, his bill was $64, and the reconnection costs panned out to an added $25.

“That’s 39 percent in seven days? Predatory creditors don’t charge that high,” he said. “For the person that is late just once in a year or two, it’s a $13 reconnect fee and a $12 late fee on a $64 water bill.”

Jones agreed with the initiative to go after chronically late payers, but asked that something more be done to clear the one-time skipping of a bill for those who go years, at least more than a year, without a problem.

Griffin said there is a provision for those who are late on one bill to not have to pay a deposit in order for services to be reconnected, but late and reconnect fees are in effect for all late payers.

Councilman Michael Rainey said Jones had a good point about extending consideration to faithful customers.

“If it’s the first time he’s been late, then we need to not charge him a reconnection fee, that’s my feeling about it,” Rainey said.

Councilman George Daye said after the council meeting that he thought Jones handled his concern the right way, letting city leaders know about it, and he agreed with Jones’ points.

“I think he was a gentleman about it,” Daye said. “I don’t think we should penalize them for being late one time. If he’s been paying his bill on time, I think you should consider that.”

Rainey in March, out of additional concern about the city not being overbearing toward its customers, wanted city staff to see if billing elderly and others on a fixed income could be done in tandem with their monthly checks so they don’t end up late. He said as of Friday the city staff was still working on that issue.

“I haven’t heard anything back on it,” Rainey said. “I still think we should be able to work something out for them.”

Jones said he also hoped the city would time their billing cycles for those on a tight income budget. The bottom line for Jones is that the city administration work on the civility of how they operate.

“The city wants to treat everyone like they are habitually late,” Jones said. “A small percentage of the people have a fixed income problem. Well, you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip. They should work with these people.”

Contact the writer at mfisher@hendersondispatch.com.