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City Defends Choice Against Payment Plan
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Stacks of pink paper, ready to be printed with the City of Oakdale final notice warning for water utility customers who havent paid their bill. Shut-off day is always the second Wednesday of the month and represents a horrendous day for the city staff as it is always busy and stressful. - photo by Kim Van Meter/The Leader

The dreaded pink slip; it can have many meanings.

But if you’re a City of Oakdale water utility customer, chances are at one point or another, you’ve received a warning in the form of the pink slip reminding you that your water utility bill is past due and scheduled for shut-off at such-and-such date.

Nobody is judging — it can happen to anyone, after all — and according to a recent survey completed by the city, 1,300 to 1,500 late notices are sent out each month out of the 7,000 customers currently using city water services so you’re in good company if you do get one.

And if you’re among those who have been unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of an actual shut-off, you know that before your water was restored, you had to pay a $25 nonpayment fee on top of your late charges before you could wash your hair or otherwise hope to turn on your faucet and expect water to flow from it.

Nothing feels more dreadful than to twist the knob at the sink and find nothing coming out, except maybe sitting in sudden darkness and wondering if you paid your electric bill, too.

What you may not realize is that the clerks behind the counter in the water department dread shut-off day, just as much as the people facing a shut off.

For some, it’s enough to create an ulcer.

Every second Wednesday of the month, they know the City Hall office will be filled with angry customers, shaking pink slips in their face, demanding to have their water turned back on, as if it was the clerk’s fault that the water was turned off. Name calling, threats, and definitely dirty looks are the norm for shut-off day.

One woman even brought her children into the office and pointed at the clerk, proclaiming loudly, “There’s the person who shut off our water!” and then left in a huff, dragging her children with her.

“We dislike shut off day,” admitted Albert Avila, City of Oakdale Finance Director. “But it’s the only way to get some customers to pay their bill.”

Avila said a recent survey, which provided a six-month analysis on city shut-offs, provided valuable information related to the subject.

Out of 7,000 customers and approximately 1,500 late notices, only 1 to 2 percent of those notified actually had their water shut-off.

“Only 8 to 10 percent of our customers required late notices,” Avila said. “And we averaged about 110 shut-offs. You wish you never had to have any but the percentage is relatively low.”

With the economy still struggling and many residents working with a reduced income, the question was posed why the city didn’t offer any type of payment arrangements for people who couldn’t pay their bill on time.

Avila stated at one time, the city did offer payment arrangements but found that the same people were using the system instead of budgeting properly for their utility bill. So instead of being helpful, it became a crutch for those who didn’t budget accordingly.

“Payment arrangements became a nightmare to keep track of,” Avila said.

However, Avila said, under extenuating circumstances, the city has allowed payment arrangements on a case-by-case basis, but the reason someone can’t pay their bill needs to be extraordinary.

“We try to work with people but it has to be a compelling reason, not just because they didn’t plan for their water bill,” Avila said.

Although the city discontinued the payment plan arrangement, he said there are groups within the city that will help, such as Family Support Network.

However, it’s not just free money, with requirements to receive it such as mandatory budgeting classes.

“There are groups who will help but most people don’t want to take the classes,” Avila said.

The Center for Human Services also offers assistance to qualified residents.

One of the misconceptions residents have is the purpose of the $25 nonpayment fee, which is tacked onto the bill if the resident’s water is shut off.

“It’s not a restoral fee,” Avila corrected. “It’s a fee for nonpayment. It covers the cost of the staff time for shut-off day and goes back into the water fund.”

Also, the shut-off list is generated the night before and if you’re on the list, whether your water gets shut off or not, doesn’t mean you escaped the nonpayment fee.

“If the list has been generated and you’re on it, you’re subject to the nonpayment fee,” Avila said. “We get a lot of angry customers over that. Shut-off day really is a horrendous day for our staff. We wish we didn’t have to do this. It’s an unfortunate way to ensure that the people who are regularly paying their bills are not penalized by higher rates because of the people who aren’t paying bills.”

The revenue generated by the nonpayment fee is approximately $33,000 a year.

On shut-off day, the City Hall office is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in an attempt to be available to those who rush in to have their water restored.

“We definitely see more a lot more activity on the day the notices are due,” Avila noted.

For more information on local programs that will help qualified residents if they fulfill certain requirements, call The Center for Human Services, Oakdale branch, at 209-847-0420; and Family Support Network at 209-847-5121.