Blaine city councilmembers have temporarily suspended utility shut-offs and late fees for all of the city’s utility customers. Separately, the board of Birch Bay Water and Sewer District (BBWSD) also suspended late fees and shut-offs on delinquent accounts.
Blaine city council
At their regular meeting on March 23, Blaine councilmembers voted 6-0 to provide utility shut-off relief for Blaine residents who have trouble paying their utility bills during the COVID-19 emergency. Those residents will be able to apply to the city to stop their utilities being cut off. Their regular utility bills will still accrue, but there won’t be any disconnection of service.
The decision to disconnect or not would be made by the city’s finance department, said city finance director Jeff Lazenby, introducing the action item to councilmembers. While the application process is still being finalized by Lazenby’s department, applicants may potentially be required to sign or give a statement in good faith stating that they need relief due to financial need. “The department could develop something like that,” Lazenby said in response to a question from mayor Bonnie Onyon. “We just don’t want it being an administrative burden on the department’s part.”
Originally, Resolution 1804-20 was written so that late fees would still be assessed and mailed for past-due accounts. Late fees are typically $5 for electric, water and sewer and $1 for stormwater, totaling $16 for customers who have all four. However, councilmembers had a lengthy discussion on whether penalty fees were appropriate during the COVID-19 crisis. Administratively, penalty fees must be charged across the board or not at all, Lazenby explained; the city can’t waive them for only some people, such as those who apply for and receive shut-off relief.
Councilmember Alicia Rule took a strong position in favor of waiving penalty fees for everyone in the city, regardless of their ability to pay. “I am in favor of including a provision that would not include penalties for paying late,” Rule said. “We have many members of our community that are severely impacted by not being able to work. And looking at the demographics of the folks who live here, there are many people who are month-to-month.”
Rule continued: “Although [$16] doesn’t seem like a lot of money, if you’re poor, every bit of that matters. … It will be the difference of some groceries for a family who needs it when they are trying to get back on their feet.… That $16 might buy them a couple of loaves of bread and a gallon of milk and I think that it’s worth it.”
City attorney Jon Sitkin described the potential pitfalls of suspending late fees en masse. “There’s isn’t a criteria that can easily be implemented nor is it easily administered by your utilities staff to say, well who’s low-income, who’s not, who should have the benefit of a waiver of any late fees or who shouldn’t,” Sitkin said. “That’s an incredibly burdensome process … You need a bright-line rule on that for your staff to administer. Either the late fee exists to everybody or there is no late fee, and the concern was that if you don’t have a late fee, … there is no reason for someone to pay because they can just wait to pay until all of sudden the emergency’s lifted.”
Sitkin also noted that the city’s municipal code already contains senior and low-income discounts. Councilmember Mary Lou Steward said that her main priority was to suspend shut-offs, and that a discussion on late fees could wait until a later date. However, Lazenby said that it would be an “administrative nightmare” to retroactively waive any late fees charged in the meantime.
“I’m leaning towards Alicia’s position of not having a late fee because of the good it’ll do for the community, rather than worrying about the downsides,” said councilmember Richard May. Councilmember Garth Baldwin agreed. “If we’re not going to cut somebody off, we’re also not going to charge them late fees,” said Baldwin. “That’s how I feel.… Another $16 is adding insult to injury to people in that situation.”
Mayor Onyon concurred that it was worth the risk of some customers delaying their utility payments despite being able to afford them. “I think it’s worth the risk of businesses or individuals that can afford it trying to take advantage of the system,” she said. “They are going to have to apply for it, and that should be embarrassing enough if they come in knowing they can afford it and actually asking for relief of that when they are fully capable of paying.”
Councilmembers amended the resolution to waive late fees for every customer in the city, and the amended resolution passed by a 6-0 vote. The meeting was personally attended by councilmembers Onyon, May and Baldwin, while Charlie Hawkins, Rule and Steward attended remotely. Eric Davidson was excused.
Also regarding utilities, councilmembers temporarily eliminated credit card processing fees for the city’s utility customers. Normally, when paying utility bills online or by phone, customers are charged a $4.95 per transaction processing fee by the city’s third-party credit card processing vendor, nCourt. Going forward, customers will receive credit adjustments on their utility accounts waiving these fees. This process became effective on March 16 and will remain in place until the city’s state of emergency is lifted.
Because nCourt is still contractually entitled to charge and retain the fees, the city will absorb these costs in its budget, and a future budget amendment may be required to reflect the additional cost to the city. Councilmembers took this action at the March 23 meeting as part of their consent agenda, in which a variety of typically unrelated items are voted on all at once without separate discussion. Their goal was to incentivize customers to pay their utility bills remotely in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.
On March 26, the BBWSD board adopted two resolutions. Resolution 760 declared a local emergency related to COVID-19. It gives the general manager expanded authorities; waives competitive bidding requirements; and allows telephonic and electronic board approval signatures.
Resolution 761, meanwhile, temporarily suspends certain district policies to provide customer relief from economic conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic. It suspends late fees or shut-offs on delinquent accounts; suspends liens and foreclosure proceedings; and suspends NSF fees.
BBWSD finance director Sandi McMillan reminded the public not to flush disposable wipes. “They are not flushable and really create a problem for both the city and the district wastewater treatment plants,” she said. Disposable baby wipes, disinfecting “pop up” wipes, paper towels and even small makeup remover wipes are the leading cause of clogged sewer lines, according to BBWSD.