City Council Votes Unanimously to Change Utility Disconnection Policy

Published on 15 May 2024 at 23:16

Washington, Georgia city council had their May meeting on Monday May 13, 2024. Mayor Bruce Bailey and all members of council from both district 1 and district 2 were present as was the city administrator, Jerry deBin and city attorney Adam Nelson.

 

The first item on the agenda was the approval of the April meeting minutes. Councilman Larry Hill had questions about the change in the way travel for education was reimbursed. He said in the past mileage was calculated and paid before the trip.  Mayor Bailey said the policy has always been to submit receipts and be reimbursed for mileage and meals and that the policy needed to be followed. Administrator deBin confirmed that is the case and the change that was made in the April meeting was to include reimbursement for more than 1 trip. The policy originally had stated only one trip would be paid for and they changed that policy to include more education trips. Hill said that was not done in the past and he felt it should continue as it has been and he wanted the city attorney, Adam Nelson to weigh in. Nelson said the current question was about what was discussed in the April meeting and the approval of the minutes. Whether or not a change to the reimbursement policy is desired, is another matter. The minutes were approved with a deletion requested by Hill.

 

Three citizens made public comments. The first was Mary Wylie. She said that grass was very tall by Sussex Apartments and she was asking if the city can cut the grass. She was told there is an insurance issue but the city will talk to code enforcement to see if anything can be done. Robin Patton spoke about a petition that she and other concerned citizens are circulating for signatures regarding speeding and loud vehicles. She said she lives on East Robert Toombs Avenue and “aggressive drivers” try to intimidate her. She said, “ramshackle work trucks” and law enforcement vehicles are speeding and loud. They will present the petition and signatures to the Wilkes County Sheriff. She said they want the laws to be enforced so Washington can be a peaceful and safe community.

 

Tiare Tatum who is a teacher at the Washington Wilkes middle school spoke and said in April she paid $712 in a utility bill, late fees, and an additional deposit and in May she received another bill for $300. She said she is a single mom and lives on a strict budget as a teacher. She brings home $2500/month and has $348 left after her bills are paid. In April she had her electricity disconnected for non-payment and all of her food spoiled and she doesn’t have money to buy more food because of paying the utility additional deposit and fees. She said, “this is not inconvenient, it is a disaster.” She said the 7% late fees the city charges are reasonable and the $55 late fee but the additional deposits (the city policy is to charge $150, $250, and $350 additional deposits when utilities are disconnected) are not reasonable. She said the councilmen and mayor were elected to help the citizens “If you don’t want to help us then resign” she said. People in the audience clapped when Tatum finished speaking. Bailey said to Tatum that she was heard and that the council is doing something about it.

 

Bailey then asked councilman Maceo Mahoney to talk about the work the utility commission and council members have been doing to address the utility deposit and cutoff policy. Mahoney said he “commends this body” for going back to look at the policy. Councilman David Fisher said he is “proud of what we’ve done.” He said he thinks it will be “something to help everybody.”

 

On several occasions and over the past several years, councilmen Mahoney, Cullars Sr., and Hill, all representing district 1 which is predominantly African American, have brought to the agenda requests to reduce rates, fees, and other methods of relief for utility costs. Repeatedly these efforts were voted down by the previous mayor Bill deGolian and members of city council, Andy Anderson, Matt Denard and Charles Wagner. At one meeting Anderson abstained in a vote that resulted in taking away the $55 late fee but at the following meeting, Anderson changed his vote so the $55 fee was added back to the policy.

 

Some of you who read the Informer probably know that I have written about utility costs and fees as well. For  almost six months I have been trying to get records to find out how much has been collected in the additional utility deposits and how much, if any amount, has been returned. I have been repeatedly refused this information by city administrator deBin, even though the records are to be made public when requested and in the past, deBin has readily made this information available to others, including Mayor Bailey during the campaign. It is still unknown how much has been collected in these additional deposits and where the money is being held. This matters because deposits should not be in the general fund and in the budget as revenue if they are to be returned. It is also customary to keep deposits in interest bearing accounts with the interest being given back to the customer upon return of the deposit. There is no agreement or contract the city has in place for citizens to sign that has these escalating deposits or what is done with them, when initiating utility service. Even if there was, these additional, escalating deposits were put in place a few years ago and it is unclear who, if anyone approved the escalating deposits. DeBin has said the council approved them but I can find no evidence of this in meeting minutes or in the recordings the Washington Wilkes Informer has, of the council meetings. This is also information that I have asked for and have not been provided.

 

In April, Tiare Tatum posted a video on Facebook of her meeting with city administrator deBin where she was asking questions about the escalating deposits. She appeared to be respectfully but pointedly asking him who approved the escalating deposit policy and he wouldn’t answer her. She asked where the deposits were being held and when she could get them back. Tatum was tearful at times and explaining to deBin the hardship the additional costs were causing her and her son. Several times deBin appeared exasperated with Tatum, left the room, came back to the room and spoke to her in a condescending tone. Tatum asked him to please sit down if he was going to talk to her but he did not. In the city council meeting on Monday, deBin stated more than once how much compassion he had for people who struggle to pay their utility bill and the efforts he makes to try and find them help. “we go out of our way at city hall” he said and that they “err on the side of the customer.” You can watch the video for yourself and see how deBin handled the situation with Tatum.

 

Tatum’s willingness to share how these policies impacted her seemed to be a catalyst for change. The council voted unanimously to do away with the escalating deposits. Mayor Bailey addressed and thanked Tatum more than once for openly sharing as she had and indicated that her struggle and voice, mattered to him. We know this mattered to Cullars Sr., Hill, and Mahoney as they have been trying to change the policy for years. It is unclear what prompted Anderson to make an about face in his opinion on the utility policy. He did say he thought Tatum’s situation was an “isolated incident.” He also said people should “pay their biggest bill, their most important bill” referring to their utility bill. Again, it is unclear how Anderson knows how prevalent or rare Tatum’s situation is, as I cannot get information on how many citizens have their utilities disconnected every month or how much has been paid in these additional deposits. While utility bills are indeed very important, food, medicine and shelter are no less important and some might say more important. Medicine and food are vital to life and if you don’t pay rent or a mortgage, you are homeless. If you can’t pay your utility bill, at least you have a roof over your head. It is very unfortunate anyone is forced to make these decisions. Debin has told me on more than one occasion when I have met with him to discuss implementing the state utility commission policies, that people who are on the cutoff list regularly are there because they don’t budget well. When I asked him how he knew this, how he knew what their financial obligations are, he said he knew because he saw them at the gas station and they were putting gas in their car.  He also said people come into city hall asking for an extension on paying their utilities yet they have hair extension and nail extensions. This he said in a meeting also attended by former mayor Bill deGolian and councilman Andy Anderson. 

 

The new policy states that if a bill is paid between the 16th and 21st of the month, a 7% late fee will be charged. On the 22nd, which is the day utilities are disconnected if not paid, there will not be an additional deposit rather a non-refundable $150 fee for reconnection in addition to the 7% additional late charge. Originally the policy proposed had an additional $55 fee but Hill and Cullars pushed for that fee to be removed so it will be removed on a trial basis for three months. DeBin pushed back on removing the $55 fee. He said the policies that have been in place, including the escalating deposits were “working.” He said before the policies were put in place there were hundreds of people on the cutoff list and that number has greatly diminished. He said the $55 is “an important incentive.” He also said the dates the utility payments are due are in place so the city can receive money so they can pay money the city owes. This indicates a paycheck-to-paycheck method of budgeting which is a concern for a municipality. The citizens of Washington receive their utility bill anywhere from the 5th through the 15th of the month and the bill is due on the 15th and late on the 16th. Utilities are disconnected on the 22nd. This is not in line with the Georgia state utility commission recommendation of disconnection occurring if not paid within 45 days of statement notice. Is the cities reserve so low that we depend on all utility payments for one month, to pay our debtors the same month? The city of Washington allows half the time recommended by the state commission, for citizens to pay their bill before disconnection.

 

DeBin went on to explain that citizens who have paid additional deposits for disconnection in the past can “earn” the money back if they have no late payments for four months and it will be returned as a credit to their account. If they pay on time for four additional months, they can receive another credit if they have paid more than one additional deposit. DeBin said there are some citizens who have paid $1200 in additional deposits. Again, it is very concerning if this money is kept in the general fund and indicated in the budget as money that can be spent. There is no line item in the budget that indicates how much has been paid in these deposits and I have asked for this information for almost six months. There was no discussion in the meeting about the impact that returning these deposits as credits, will have on the proposed budget for 2024. Certainly, this new policy was not anticipated when the budget was created. DeBin also said in the meeting “part of the reason we are in good financial shape is because we have these policies in place."

 

During the council meeting Tatum spoke out and asked why she can’t get her deposit back so she won’t get behind again. She said, “I just told you we don’t have anything to eat, we don’t have money for laundry.” At one point, she pointed out that she would have worn something different to address the council if she had money to go to the laundromat. The mayor and council didn't answer her question. Councilman Hill told her that her service as a teacher and volunteer in the community is appreciated.

 

Mayor Bailey shared an update on the splashpad that will be at Simpson Park. He said he is looking at making the area safe for children by adding sidewalks and possibly a four-way traffic stop. He said there will also be a pickleball court. Councilman Mahoney gave an update on the pool and said they must have two lifeguards to get the pool open and they are working on getting three trained.

 

Cullars Sr. asked Bailey for a status update on the matter with him attempting to remove Angela Booker and Alvin Jones from the Housing Authority Board. Bailey responded that he hadn't received the documents he requested from the director, Zena Zaran. HUD attorney, Stewart Duggan sent an email to Bailey on March 27, 2024 stating he had no authority to receive the documents he requested and that Zaran had no obligation to share documents with him as the housing authority board is a federally funded HUD board. He also again told Bailey if he moved forward with removing Booker and Jones from the board, that he would file a lawsuit against Bailey. Duggan also stated this in the hearing, two months ago, that was conducted regarding Bailey's attempt to remove Booker from the board, ironically, for having a late utility bill that had been paid.  You can see the video of the hearing on the Washington Wilkes Informer YouTube Channel.

 

The council then went into executive session to discuss personnel and litigation matters. You can watch the full recording of the May city council meeting on the Washington Wilkes Informer YouTube Channel.


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Comments

Cynthia Uhrich
10 days ago

I suspect these funds have gone into someone's pockets...if they cannot account for these funds, who is to be held accountable. It feels like a cruel money-making scheme to take advantage of those in Washington her are less well-off financially. Shameful.