PORT TOWNSEND — Water will keep flowing —at least through the end of the year — for some 80 Port Townsend utility customers facing shut-offs due to failure to pay their monthly bills.
The City Council unanimously voted Tuesday to extend for the second time a March 23 proclamation suspending shut-offs, late fees and penalties for accounts that are more than two months past due.
“Unfortunately, we do not have the ability to waive utility bills, but we can forego shutoffs and late fees,” Finance Department Director Nora Mitchell told council members, noting that waiving bills entirely would constitute an illegal gift of public funds.
However, Mitchell urged anyone struggling to keep up with bills for city water, sewer and storm water services — amounting to an average of $123 per month — to call the city’s finance department at 360-385-2700 to set up a payment plan.
When the shut-off suspension ends, customers still will owe their cumulative unpaid balance, which is one reason Finance Manager Tony Hillman recommends customers set up a payment plan.
The city has expanded the length of its payment plans from two months to six months, he said, and also offers a low-income discount that can cut their monthly bill in half.
Residents dealing with financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic can also apply for aid, he said, thanks to $25,000 pulled from the city’s utility fund and about $8,000 collected in community donations since May.
Eligible applicants receive between $65 and $125 based on household size.
“When we set it up, we thought we were going to get a ton of applicants,” Hillman said, “so we wanted the money to go a long ways and be distributed equitably.”
Instead, the city has received nine applications for aid, six of which have been approved for a total payout of $435, he said.
On Tuesday, Mitchell told council members that her staff would start reaching out in the next month to residents who would have had their water shut off if not for the suspension.
Each month, the city sends a notice to an average of 100 to 150 customers who have failed to pay the previous month’s bill, Hillman said. And typically, most if not all customers pay within a few weeks.
In January, he said, the city sent notices to 106 customers, two of whom failed to pay within three weeks, leading their services being shut off.
In August, the city sent notices to 179 customers, 80 of whom have not paid, he said.
“That’s a pretty big number for us,” Hillman said, noting that those 80 accounts represent a multi-month accumulation due to the suspension of shut-offs.
“If someone calls in and sets up a payment plan,” he said, “they won’t be on that list of accounts due to be shut off.”
Also, the Jefferson County Public Utility District plans to continue its ongoing suspension of disconnections until further notice, in keeping with Gov. Jay Inslee’s Feb. 29 order directing all utility providers to suspend shut-offs and late fees, which has been extended through Oct. 15.
Jefferson County senior reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached at [email protected].