A revised state budget bill signed Nov. 18 by Gov. Ralph Northam includes a new moratorium on utility disconnects, including delinquent water and sewer accounts in the Town of Pulaski.
Interim Town Manager Darlene Burcham briefed town council on the situation at their meeting Tuesday night.
Burcham said the moratorium will be in effect until the governor either determines that the economic and public health conditions have improved to a point the moratorium does not need to be in place or until at least 60 days after the state of emergency in Virginia ends – whichever is sooner.
Burcham continued that within 60 days of the governor’s action on Nov. 18, the town must notify town customers that are at least 30 days in arrears on their water and sewer bills of the COVID-19 Relief Repayment Plan.
“Customers will have to complete an application and sign an affidavit saying they are experiencing a financial hardship as a result of COVID-19,” Burcham explained.
She said the town had applied for special CARES Act relief funds in the amount of $14,389 that the federal government has made available specifically for this purpose to help utility customers.
She said should the town receive some of the relief funds, funds received will have to be applied to the most delinquent accounts first. She noted the town hasn’t received any notice of when those funds might be received.
Burcham noted the town, because of COVID-19, voluntarily did not disconnect any past due accounts during March, April or May of this year, and no penalties were charged during that period.
She said on average, the town disconnects between 150 and 175 accounts per month.
Burcham said the town currently has 71 accounts that are at least 30 days in arrears and 47 that are at least 60 days in arrears.
By the end of March, the town had just under $29,000 (over 300 accounts) due in outstanding utility bills.
By the end of April, the town had $37,000 (almost 400 accounts) in outstanding bills.
By the end of May, there was $197,000 outstanding.
Burcham said by the end of June, the town had $170,000 outstanding, of which $18,000 was at least two months past due.
When disconnects resumed in June, the town cut off only those accounts (108) that were still past due for the months of March and April.
In July, she said 240 accounts – for the months of May and June – were cut off.
She said regular disconnections began again in June, and since then Burcham said cutoffs have been on time for delinquent accounts from that point until now, “so the numbers have been pretty good.”
“With the enactment of this moratorium we expect to see the numbers of unpaid accounts increase and a significant loss in revenue if we are not allowed to recapture bills for an extended period of time. The repayment plans indicated in the moratorium give up to 24 months to be paid,” Burcham said.
She added her concern is not knowing what is going to happen with accounts going forward, and if there will be a second phase of funding to be available for those accounts as well.
Burcham noted that while the moratorium is good in helping people who are suffering, it will have an impact on the town’s water and sewer fund.
Councilman Greg East noted that judging by the delinquent account figures for March, April and May the “potential is here for tremendous revenue loss.”
Councilman Brooks Dawson said the town needs to do all it can do to make town water customers understand they will be held financially responsible at some point for what they owe.
Macgill Village Park
During council’s roundtable discussion, Councilman Michael Reis mentioned the ongoing issue surrounding Gary Martin’s home at Macgill Village Park.
Reis said he believes it is the desire of council to have a plan on what to do with the entire park property to open it up for development.
He said council would like for Burcham to move forward with whatever steps are necessary to gauge interest and see who might be interested in doing something with the property.
“We want to communicate that to the community and that we’re opening that up to as broad a group of people as possible,” he said.
Reis said Burcham had mentioned before there is a housing shortage in town and he’s hoping some work can be done to improve the housing stock in Pulaski.
Councilman Jamie Radcliffe agreed, saying the town needs a plan and once it is developed to “stay the course.”
He said the town needs more homes.
“With Mack coming in quality homes will go if that’s what goes there. Give them (Martins) 30 days and then whatever the next step is we need to take it,” Radcliffe said.
Dawson said he agreed.
“We have an obligation to do something with that 11-acre parcel in the middle of town sitting there not doing anything currently for the citizens and we can do better than that,” he said.
Reis added citizens should know that council is also looking at other pieces of property the town owns that “aren’t being used for what they were intended.”
Mayor Shannon Collins announced $700 bonuses for all fulltime employees and $100 bonuses for parttime employees of the town.
Collins said a couple months ago, the county had offered the town additional CARES Act funds to provide for recognition of the hazards the town’s public safety employees had encountered during COVID-19.
“The council and town manager felt strongly that all town employees deserved such recognition and asked Ms. Burcham to work on a plan to make this happen,” Collins said.
He said he was pleased to announce Burcham had identified savings in the town manager’s budget that, coupled with the county’s additional allocation for public safety employees, will allow the town to give all fulltime employees $700 and all parttime employees $100 in a special check run in mid-December.
He expressed council’s appreciation to both the county and Burcham for making the bonuses possible.
By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot