After a year-long moratorium on shutting off utilities, Moorhead Public Service will be contacting past-due customers to work out repayment plans.
MPS director Travis Schmidt laid out the plan to help the city’s 494 customers with past-due balances catch up with their bills to the City Council at its meeting Monday. The council approved the plan, which had been okayed by the Public Service Commission last week, with one change: allowing the delinquent creditors even more time to bring their accounts, up to 24 months. The issue now returns to the PSC for review.
Schmidt explained that the utility and city decided a year ago to suspend the practice of disconnecting power and water for nonpayment of bills, which include both the fees for electricity and a range of other city services (wastewater, stormwater, garbage removal and other fees). The nondisconnect policy was instituted because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the financial difficulties many have faced because of it.
The result has been a dramatic increase in the number and size of past-due accounts, many of them renters. Schmidt said that in February 2020, just 1% of accounts were overdue for the MPS portion of their bills. In January 2021, those numbers had risen to 16% and $650,000.
The change was even more dramatic for the city’s portion of the bills: from 34% on the same date in 2020 to 45% in January, an increase of 34%. The total amount due today is $1.1 million.
The great majority of those accounts are residential, Schmidt noted – 471 of the 494 total. Thirty-four percent are behind up to $600 in their payment, and an equal number for $600-1,200. The remaining third of overdue accounts range from $1,200 to $7,800.
“Our goal is to get these customers talking to us,” the manager said, noting that staff will begin contacting them in coming weeks. He explained that the staff will first encourage them to reach out for COVID relief funds and other sources of supports, including the West Central Community Action Agency and Lakes and Prairies Community Action Program. After that assistance has been secured, the utility will work with customers on a payment plan for their remaining balance.
The MPS board last week approved a plan breaking down unpaid balance as of April 20 into manageable interest- and penalty-free amounts payable over six, 12, 18 or 24 months, depending on the total owed. At the urging of council member Larry Seljevold, the city council upped the pay-off period to 24 months for all – a decision that now goes back to the public service board.
MPS will begin disconnecting customers who do not contact them to make arrangements for repayment on April 20.
– Nancy Edmonds Hanson