Cities trying to avoid utility disconnections
October 21, 2020
In the wake of the pandemic, unemployment and economic hardship have resulted in many people struggling to pay their rent, utilities, and other expenses.
In Portales, for example, water was shut off in 150 homes in September and 250 more so far this month. That's according to John DeSha, Portales' Public Works director.
But DeSha points out that some of those disconnects are a result of residents leaving their property. He said the city did not disconnect any water because of failure to pay during the early months of the pandemic. And during those months, some people left their homes “without notifying us to disconnect service and close the account.”
“We made several attempts to contact the delinquent accounts (in September and October) to assist them before we reinstated disconnections,” DeSha said.
The city updated its utility disconnect policy on Sept. 2 which states that a resident's utility account is considered “delinquent” if payment is not received by the utility office on the 15th of each month. A 10% penalty is added to that account at the time of a missed payment.
If the bill is not paid by the 10th of the following month then that account is added to a “disconnect list” and disconnected at that time. To reconnect a property the resident must pay a $25 fee.
The city policy was temporarily waived during the early months of the pandemic.
The city was awarded more than $109,000 in CARES Act grants for local government use. But DeSha said he did not know if any funding was available for resident utility assistance through this grant.
The city of Clovis was awarded over $240,000 for its local government, and set aside $25,000 for housing assistance, $20,000 for childcare assistance and $25,000 for utility assistance.
Approximately one-third of applicants for assistance from the Clovis grant requested help with utility expenses, according to Raymond Mondragon, government specialist for the Eastern Plains Council of Governments.
Mondragon said 62 applications had been received as of Monday. So far 32 have been approved, 21 are pending additional information, and nine were not qualified.
While officials at EPCOR, Clovis' water utility provider, could not be reached for specifics regarding water shut offs in Clovis the high participation rate for utility assistance from the CARES Act suggests a similar issue in Clovis.
Additional sources for aid include:
n New Mexico's COVID-19 general hotline at 1-833-551-0518. The state advises residents who have had their utilities shut off during the public health emergency to call their hotline for more information about what can be done. They specify that electricity should not be shut off under a state issued moratorium, but water is under the guidelines of local authorities.
n National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) at 1-866-674-6327 or [email protected] for energy assistance referral. NEAR is a free service that helps people find their local Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). LIHEAP helps pay a portion of energy bill for eligible low-income residents. At the beginning of the pandemic LIHEAP was awarded over $900 million included in the CARES Act for energy crisis assistance.
n Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): In New Mexico TANF is run under the name NMWorks. Their goal is stated to be to help families achieve self-sufficiency. Each state receives grants that they disperse to qualified applicants. Eligibility and more information can be found at the benefits.gov website.