Where are the Utility Deposits?

Published on 24 May 2024 at 17:26

On May 13, 2024, at the Washington, Georgia monthly city council meeting (read summary here), the council voted to change the policy for utility disconnections and do away with the escalating deposits of $150, $250 and $350. Instead, there will be a $150 fee that will not be refundable, for each reconnection.  It was also decided that customers who have been current with their utility payments and have not had late payments, will receive their deposit back, including the initial deposit when initiating service. This was wonderful news to many who, as Washington resident and middle school teacher Tiare Tatum expressed at the meeting, have really suffered as a result of the escalating deposits.

 

A question that was not answered at the meeting, was how much has been collected in these deposits, who approved the policy for the $250 and $350 additional deposits and where this money is being held. Is interest accruing on these deposits, if so, will that interest be paid back to customers as is recommended by the state utility commission?

 

I have been trying to get answers to these questions since November of 2023. I have been refused this information, which is public record, by city administrator, Jerry deBin. After the May city council meeting, many more citizens are asking these same questions. On May 16 I sent an email to mayor Bruce Bailey and each member of city council asking these questions. I thought, since it was said in the council meeting that the utility commission, city administrator and city council all worked on this policy change and had in depth discussions, surely, they would know the answers. I received a reply from the mayor alone (council members copied) saying I needed to make my request to the city clerk Debbie Bazemore. I expressed my reluctance and told the mayor and council via email that I have been requesting this information since November and that if they have answers to my questions, per the open records law, they can provide them to me as well. The mayor did not answer my questions nor did any member of council, he again urged me to make a request to the city clerk as that is the policy.

 

I had little hope that I would get answers but did make a request to the city clerk and to Jerry deBin on May 16. Here is my request:

 

Per Georgia Open Records law I am requesting the following:

 

The amount collected in utility deposits in total in 2023.

 

The number of new utility accounts opened in 2023. Just the number not names of account owners. 

 

Evidence the city council approved the additional deposit amounts of $250 and $350 when utilities are disconnected.

 

What account the deposits are held in, meaning are they held in an account separate from the general fund and the amount in interest earned on the funds in 2023.

 

 

I received a confirmation from deBin the following day stating he received my request ( the former clerk Wanda Dingler had mistakenly been copied on the email) and he and Bazemore would review and get back to me with a time estimate and cost if the time to compile the records would take longer than 15 minutes the law indicates be free of charge. Open records law also states requests must be fulfilled within three business days and if they can’t be fulfilled, within those three days, notification needs to be given as to when the request will be fulfilled. I hadn’t received any updates so emailed Bazemore and deBin today (six business days from my request) asking for an update. This was deBin’s response:

 

Michelle,

Good afternoon. As a follow-up, we assessed your requests to see what record(s) exist, and to determine what is readily available vs. what would require compiling. We should have a cost estimate next week. Keep in mind that Monday is a holiday. Several of our staff members have been out extended days due to illness and/or family situations, and the remaining staff pitch in to help in their absence. 

 

Please bear with us. Thanks, and have a good weekend.

 

This is exactly what I expected, more delays, more apparent efforts to not provide the records I have been requesting now for nearly six months. It also is telling in that, if anyone actually knew how much money had been collected in utility deposits in 2023, it would take no time at all to respond to that question. The lack of response indicates to me that nobody knows how much was collected in deposits in 2023 or if they do know, they don’t want to tell me/you. I assumed the city council members who made a decision to stop collecting these deposits would have requested this information before making a decision. This is information that could have a significant impact on the city budget. I would also think they would have asked where these deposits are being held and if interest is accruing on the funds. If this money is in the general fund and being counted as revenue, that may mean it is being spent and whatever it is designated to be spent on, may be impacted if the deposits are actually returned to customers. It is possible they believe the deposits won’t be returned because citizens won’t be able to stay current on their payments. This also gives the city an incentive to not want to return the deposits if the money is being counted on to pay other expenses. These questions could all be put to rest if the information was provided.

 

Where is the money and why won’t anybody answer the questions? Tiare Tatum asked these questions multiple times as well, of deBin, in the video she recorded while meeting with him at city hall to discuss her bill and the deposits she had paid. Several customers who have paid these deposits have said they are not listed on their bill and that they had no idea when or if they would ever get the money back. It would be so simple for the city administrator, mayor and council to put at ease, all customers regarding these utility deposits, how much has been collected and if this money was counted as revenue and in the general fund or if it has always been held separately and in interest bearing accounts, if so, how much money has the city made on customer money? The more delays and refusals to provide the information, the more doubt and concern is fueled.

 

If you have paid multiple utility deposits we want to hear from you. You can send us a message using the contact form.


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Comments

Cynthia Uhrich
a month ago

Something rotten going on here...good to be diligent because citizens rights have been abused.

Michael Horgan
a month ago

How hard can this be to answer. At a minimum, all funds should be in one account, regardless of which account it is.

Randolph Wilkinson
10 days ago

I was charged $150.00 late fee, and my service had not been turned off.