PORT ANGELES — The Port Angeles City Council has approved unanimously a resolution to extend a waiver of interest on utility accounts and temporarily change payment requirements to reconnect utility services.
The council initially had approved the waiver on all accounts receivable in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and then extended it in January 2022 specifically for utility accounts, noting the continued financial struggles of customers coming out of the pandemic.
Staff on Tuesday recommended continuing this waiver on utility interest through Sept. 30 and recommended that the temporary change in payment requirements to reconnect services be extended through the end of the year.
This action allows ratepayers to coordinate payment plans with the city without overextending their finances by paying large past-due sums on their utilities.
Additionally, accounts can be disconnected only if ratepayers missed two or more payments on their agreed-upon plan.
Services would be reconnected after 50 percent of the past due amounts were paid or for $500.
Finance Director Sarina Carrizosa said the city has had a high volume of past due amounts over the last few years though the balances have decreased overall from $1.8 million in January 2022 to $1.5 million in January 2023.
Carrizosa said the city typically has an average volume of roughly $300,000 in past-due balances.
“As of Jan. 31, 2023, this balance was about $1.5 million and the past due amount has decreased $300,000 overall after payments and additional arrears throughout the year,” she said.
“Total utility service collection includes multiple utility funds such as electric, water, wastewater, solid waste and Medic 1, and the total estimated 2023 budget for collection from services provided for all those funds combined is $49.3 million for all customer types (residential, commercial, industrial, etc.),” Carrizosa added.
By waiving the interest and changing the payment requirements, the city is allowing more time for staff to look into grants to help people cover their utilities, Carrizosa said.
“Also it allows staff to continue to work with customers that are in arrears and provides them options for payment plans and consideration of low-income discount programs and connects them with community organizations to assist them,” she added.
“COVID was a big cinderblock dropped in the bathtub and we’re still seeing the water hit the walls at different times, and for a lot of families in Port Angeles, it’s not over,” Council member Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin said.
“I think the number of accounts that are past due reflects that the balance of payment has gone down without us taking the dramatic step of making people homeless by shutting off their utilities,” he said.
More than a third of those participating in the utility assistance program also are seeking additional assistance through community organizations such as Olympic Community Action Programs, according to Schromen-Warwrin, who added that he appreciates staff and council’s compassionate approach to this issue.
Appointed council member Amy Miller, who was sworn into her seat just hours before, noted that sometimes there are barriers for people seeking additional assistance and that anything the city can do to help would be a benefit to the community as a whole.
“Sometimes going to agencies for services can be onerous,” Miller said.
“There can be barriers in place, such as application fees, and if these agencies are listening tonight, anything we can do to remove those barriers to get the rest of the two-thirds of people that need assistance to get through that application process would be wonderful,” she added.
Reporter Ken Park can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.