Tri-City Ledger -

By Gretchen McPherson
Ledger Staff 

Council approves hardship agreement


April 23, 2020

Starting in May, some residents may see door hangers on their homes as the Century council approved a plan to allow residents who are experiencing financial hardships by the current shelter in place order due to the coronavirus to sign an agreement within 48 hours of utility cut off due to non-payment.

City Manager Vernon Prather reminded council members that meters are read the 15th through the 21st of each month and that bills are mailed at the end of each month.

He said penalties are applied the 15th through the 25th and that a late notice goes out around the 16th. He said disconnects are usually done around the 25th for accounts not paid, exceeding $80 from previous month. He told the council $80 is around 50 percent of the deposit they make when it is turned on. He said most residents in the city have water and sewer, so about $130 is typically owed for both.

“Typically, we send out about 1,100 bills a month,” said Prather. “Of those, 800 to 900 are very prompt payers. Then there are others who come along later in the month. At cut off time, there are usually about 40 customers you have to go through the cutoff process with, turning them off and then back on. We have about 1 ½ percent to 4 percent of our customers who do not pay.”

Council president Ann Brooks said Gulf Power encourages customers to pay, but they are not going to cut you someone who cannot pay at this time. Brooks asked for suggestions from council members how to make it fair but not let the town get in a bind.

Councilman James Smith showed concern regarding when to begin a program to help residents, how to inform them of it and then how to address the situation if it continues for longer than healthcare and governmental authorities are estimating.

Prather suggested the town mail a letter to customers on the 28th who have not paid.

“To get the word out, we have to go to next month,” said Prather. “We can offer payment agreements to catch up versus payment deferral. We don't know how long this will last.”

Councilman Smith agreed that was a good idea because there are so many who are struggling.

“Im all for whatever we can do to try to help the citizens,” said Smith. “Once everything gets back to normal, it still will be difficult to try and get caught up. That's going to be a difficult decision.

Whatever we decide, I think a notice of whatever that decision should go out with the next bill.”

Councilman Ben Boutwell expressed concern the town give some leeway in this pandemic, but not to the point of self-deprecation.

“We can't compare ourselves with Gulf Power,” said Boutwell. “I think it's a case-by-case issue. We can't waive anything, we've got to take care of the town of Century. If we don't have resources in place, we can't take care of our workers.”

Councilman Luis Gomez suggested sending the letter out earlier, around the 16th.

“We need to send bills at month's beginning, then send a second notice on the 16th,” said Gomez. “That's when the notice needs to be sent that they can have help if needed, and then they can respond to the letter.”

Brooks suggested the council members receive a draft of the letter to look at and review at the next council meeting and Prather agreed.

“It should be clear, this is not a forgiveness of the debt,” said Brooks. “It is deferral, so the problem does not compound.”

Council members asked about late fees during the deferral process.

Boutwell suggested if a resident comes to town hall and represents their problems, no late fee should be assessed and Councilman Smith agreed.

There was some discussion about the reconnect fee for those who have it turned off then turned back on, which is $25 for water and $30 for gas to reconnect.

Prather asked about cut offs scheduled for this month, explaining they are a little over a week away.

Brooks suggested the town post a notice telling a resident they are due to be cut off, and that the town is giving them the opporunity to sign a deferral plan not be cutoff.

Councilwoman Sandra mcMurray Jackson asked what would happen in the event they don't come in. Brooks said she felt then the town would have given them a notice, so the reconnect fee still stands if someone doesn't come in within 48 hours to sign an agreement.

Boutwell and Smith agreed they feel the town needs to make sure residents do not miss a payment.

Prather said once the letter is sent out, residents will be advised of the programs the town offers, that they are responsible for that bill, as long as they keep it below $80.

Brooks suggested Prather provide council members a list of customers who have signed an agreement, to provide council monitoring to make sure residents are paying what they agreed to pay.

Prather said yes that he could, but was met with some hesitation by Councilman Gomez.

“We have to be careful with that information,” said Gomez. “I don't want Century, Fla. to know I am going through a hardship. Let's not bring any undo suffering, especially to us. We don't need any unwarranted attention.”

Brooks said she thought an agreement should be drafted for council review at the next meeting. She said she agreed that the cut off could be delayed 48 hours, then inform them of the amount due to avoid cut off.

Councilman Smith made a motion that the town will issue door hangers on the doors for customers who are late in the month of May, give them 48 hours to come in and pay, and then cut off the appropriate utility if they do not sign an agreement to pay in the future. The motion was seconded by Councilman Boutwell and the motion carried unanimously.

In other business, the town of Century will receive as much almost $29,000 in fees for bond issuance to fund two projects with the Capital Trust Agency (CTA) following council approval.

CTA representative Michael Stebbins presented the two charter school projects, Plato Academy Schools and Pepin Academies, to the council. If approved, the mayor is authorized to sign an amendment to an inter local agreement, between the Town of Century and the City of Gulf Breeze, that allows bond issuance.

The first project, Plato Academy School, through Plato Holdings, will use up to $60 million to acquire six charter schools throughout the state of Florida. The schools will serve more than 5,0000 students in grades K through 8.

CTA is requesting authorization of the bond issuance for the purpose of acquiring the schools. If the total of $60 million is issued, the fee to Century will be $23,250.

In a motion made by Councilman Boutwell and seconded by Councilman James Smith, the motion carried unanimously.

The second project, Pepin Academies, is seeking a bond issuance of $13.5 million to renovate and purchase three existing properties, including a 60,000 square-foot facility and adjacent property. This charter school project focuses on developmentally disabled students. The public purpose for both projects is to provide educational facilities for the communities.

If the entire $13.5 million is issued, the fee to Century will be $5,600.

In a motion made by Councilman Smith and seconded by Councilman Gomez, the motion carried unanimously.


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