MOORHEAD — With temperatures again dipping well below zero and a winter that never seems to end, Moorhead City Council members discussed at the Feb. 24 meeting their concerns about people having their electricity shut off.
Officials from Moorhead Public Service, the utiility that provides water and electricity to about 20,000 customers monthly in the city, said they never completely shut off electricity to residents.
Instead, they deploy an "on-off" disconnection system where electricity is on for 30 minutes, then off for 30 minutes, but a majority of customers usually pay their bill the day it happens and the electricity is soon back on, said Nancy Lund, administration and finance manager for MPS.
She said in an interview Tuesday, Feb. 26, that approximately 200 customers a month, or about 1 percent, go through the shut-off process every month. A majority of those are low-income renters, according to Lund.
The council, however, on Monday raised concerns that the cold weather rule that prevents disconnections from Oct. 15 to April 15 wasn't being followed.
Lund and MPS General Manager Bill Schwandt said they do abide by state law. But they added that customers are still required to set up a payment plan under the rule.
If aid is needed, Lund said they work with customers regarding payment plans and refer them to social service agencies or the West Central Community Action Agency that administers the federal government Low Income Energy Assistance Program to pay heating bills.
Another concern raised by the council was water shut-offs. Councilwoman Heidi Durand and Deb White wondered if cutting off water was even necessary, especially during the winter, and questioned if it was being used by MPS as a collection tool.
City Manager Chris Volkers said she simply wanted some direction from the city council that she could relay to MPS. The council consensus, without a vote, was that electricity should never be shut off in the cold-weather months under any circumstances; council members also said water shut-offs should be stopped, nothing that turning off underground valves in the winter is difficult if not impossible.
Durand told the council water bills not paid within 45 days can result in a water shut-off.
However, the issues go much deeper than that.
According to Schwandt and Lund, the Minnesota Department of Commerce that oversees the low-income heating assistance plan has reached an agreement in the past month with MPS that if city fees for things like stormwater, wastewater and street lights are not paid, the MPS cannot cut off electricity at any time during the year to low-income residents on heating assistance because it is a 12-month program.
That, Volkers said, was also being used until recently as a collection tool by MPS because if low-income residents didn't pay the city fees, they also could have electricity and water shut off.
So a big question looming is how the city is going to recover those city fees.
Volkers said the city would work with MPS officials on a larger, more comprehensive and customer-friendly plan to get the city fees paid, as well as on other MPS collection policies.
"I never intended that we have forgiveness on city fees," she told the council.
The plan, she said, could be presented at a meeting next month.
Durand said she believes people look at their utility bill as one of their most important bills and that she worries about low-income residents having to "go get a Pay Day loan" so they don't lose their electricity or water. She said she would like to see more customer-friendly options, and she was also concerned about the high cost of disconnection and re-connection fees, although MPS said they are within industry averages.
One of the newest members of the MPS commission that oversees operations, Mari Dailey, agrees. The former city councilwoman said in an email that shut-off complaints had been her "nemesis" in her five years on the council and that's one reason she applied for the commission. She was appointed by the city council to begin serving last month.
Dailey also said she objects to the reconnection charges, short billing cycle, customer service and MPS late payment plan options.
Dailey also believes city fees should be applied to property taxes so utility services aren't affected.
As for the number of late-paying customers, Lund said collection of bills is a problem. On average, she said 14 percent, or about 2,800, customers each month don't pay on time and enter the collection process. Of that number, about 6 percent, or 1,200, each month don't pay their bill within the next 24 days and receive a phone call. Then, as she pointed out, those 1 percent or about 200 each month have services disconnected.
Schwandt added that "the challenge is if customers don't pay their bills, others end up paying it for them."