Moorhead sets up overdue utility payment option, but shutoffs loom in April
Goal is to connect with 1,500 customers who owe about $1.7 million
MOORHEAD — Moorhead's Public Service Commission gave final approval on Tuesday, Feb. 16, to a payment plan option for the 1,500 city residents who are overdue on their utility payments to the city and to the electric and water utility.
The plan gives residents who owe a combined total of about $1.75 million up to 24 months to pay off their bills — interest free — that in many instances were late because of job losses or reduced hours caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the plan also calls for utility shutoffs to resume on April 20 if payment plans aren't made with Moorhead Public Service.
Originally, there was a shorter payback period for those who owed less than $1,200, but the Moorhead City Council last week unanimously voted to allow the two-year payback, and the MPS board agreed on Tuesday.
Councilman Chuck Hendrickson, who also is a liaison to the MPS board, said at Tuesday's meeting that the "extra time to pay off the bills could make a world of difference."
On a positive note, MPS General Manager Travis Schmidt pointed out that about 85% of residents are current on their bills.
However, MPS Controller Mark Moilanen said past due amounts have grown 160% from $672,000 at the end of February 2020 to the $1.75 million figure as of Jan. 31 of this year.
About $1.1 million is owed to the city for its utility services such as garbage, sewer, street lights and forestry, up from $631,000 almost a year ago. Overdue bills to MPS for electricity and water have grown from $40,000 to $650,000 during the state of emergency sparked by the pandemic, under which a moratorium on those electric and water utility shutoffs has been in effect.
MPS bills and collects the city's portions of utility payments, too.
Moilanen said about 75% of the 1,500 customers owing two months or more on their bills are renters.
He described difficulties in communicating with many residents that are behind.
In the next 60 days, or until April 20, he said they have a plan to step up efforts to communicate with those residents starting with a letter that is being sent to the 1,500 households that are past due. Phone calls are also part of the effort.
It was emphasized at the MPS Commission and City Council meetings that officials are urging residents to apply with agencies that can provide help with utility payments.
The local Salvation Army has a utility assistance program, and Moilanen said he has been assured that more state or federal money is likely coming soon through agencies that help the poor including Lakes & Prairie Community Action in the county's Family Service Center or West Central Minnesota Communities Action through its programs.
The Minnesota Department of Commerce is also an agent for offering utility assistance.
City Councilman Larry Seljevold said he was willing to pay more on his utility bill to help cut down the overdue charges, but Schmidt and City Manager Dan Mahli said there really wasn't a viable option to do that through the billing system. Instead, residents who want to help were encouraged to donate to the Salvation Army.
Seljevold said there might be some people who need help but don't qualify for other programs.
Councilman Matt Gilbertson said one way to get people's attention or to get a phone call back is when the utility shutoffs begin in April. He was told by MPS officials that the outstanding bills of people who haven't signed up for a payment plan after April 20 will be turned over to collections.