New rules that Statesboro City Council approved Tuesday restrict water bill adjustments for city employees and their families but also provide a waiver of late charges for customers with previously spotless five-year payment histories.
Council heard a first reading May 5, so the unanimous vote Tuesday put the new Water and Sewer Billing Ordinance into effect. The actual city law is just over one page long, but it refers to billing procedures in a 3½-page attachment.
City staff members from several departments met eight times to develop the ordinance and procedures, said interim City Manager Robert Cheshire.
“That seems like a lot, but there’s a lot to this ordinance,” he said.
At the previous meeting, he had explained the rules aimed at creating levels of accountability when the city’s employees, elected officials or their family members seek billing adjustments. These “miscellaneous provisions” form only the last section of the new rules.
For most city employees and members of their households or immediate relatives, the city manager’s written consent is now required for any water or sewer bill adjustment.
For officials appointed by the mayor and council, including the city manager, city clerk, city attorney and Municipal Court judge, and their families, the mayor’s written consent is required.
For a billing adjustment for a City Council member, the mayor or members of their households or immediate families, the written consent of two other elected officials will now be required.
Other procedures define how customers in general get a bill reduction after a water leak. The newly adopted rules also allow for setting up a payment plan and getting an exemption from a cutoff of service in hardship cases.
Best customers’ waiver
While generally restricting fee adjustments, the new rules allow a waiver of all late fees and collection fees “for an exemplary payment history.”
This waiver is available only on residential water and sewer accounts. To qualify, the customer must have been on-time with payments, never had a check returned and otherwise have an exemplary payment history for 60 consecutive billing cycles, in other words five years, since the last exemption.
“We had that occurrence, literally had somebody that had been a customer for over 20 years and always made their payments and just had a life incident that we all have on occasion,” Cheshire said in a interview. “We just felt like a person that had that really good history should be given a do-over.”
Once used, the late fee waiver cannot be granted again for another five years.
Otherwise, the new rules prohibit the city clerk and city manager from waiving penalties and collection charges for financial and other hardships.
In hardship cases, the clerk could set up a payment plan to bring the account current within three months, or the city manager could authorize a six-month payment plan, but only one in any two-year period.
Adjusting for leaks
Subject to specific limits, the city clerk would have authority to adjust water or sewer bills of residential customers who experience “loss of metered water beyond the customer's normal and reasonable control.”
For confirmed leaks where the lost water does not go into the sewer system, the clerk will be required to reduce the sewer charge to the customer’s average charge for the three months prior to the excessive meter reading.
The clerk will base the adjusted water charge on the average of the three months prior to the leak, but will still bill the customer for half of the water loss. This is intended as an incentive for people to fix or report leaks quickly, Cheshire said.
For leaks where the lost water enters the sewer system, the credit would be applied only to the water portion of the bill, and only one credit will be allowed in 24 months.
Adjustments are prohibited for water used in swimming pools or billed through an irrigation meter.
But the new rules provide for special billing adjustments “to avoid a manifest injustice to the customer or unjust enrichment to the city.” The city clerk would have to recommend such an adjustment to the city manager, who would investigate before approving, accepting or modifying the change.
Council members discussed changing references to the city clerk to refer instead to the “city clerk’s designee” or the “city manager’s designee” in case another employee is assigned water and sewer billing in the future. But Cheshire and City Attorney Alvin Leaphart told the council that even if a designated employee handled the billing, the responsibility would remain the city clerk’s or city manager’s.
On a motion from Councilman Phil Boyum, seconded by Councilman John Riggs, the council approved the ordinance and rules as written.
Also Tuesday evening, the council authorized the Police Department to apply for a federal grant for body-worn video cameras for patrol officers. A contract was awarded for renovations to the old Police Department building for the relocated Municipal Court, and two zoning requests were handled.
At the end of its open session, the council went into closed session for more than an hour to discuss “personnel matters” and “potential litigation.” When the meeting was reopened, Mayor Jan Moore reported that no action had been taken. The meeting that began at 5:30 p.m. was adjourned at about 9:05.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.