The Bend utilities department will resume water shutoffs for delinquent payments on July 1, after two years of allowing people who hadn't paid their bills to keep drawing City water. City Manager Eric King issued an emergency declaration suspending water service shutoffs in March 2020 due to the pandemic. The order was due to expire on June 30, 2021, but technical difficulties forced utility director Mike Buettner to extended the order for another year.
"The City was just going live on a utility billing software conversion," said Dana Wilson, utility business manager for the City of Bend.
During the height of delinquent billing about 2,500 customers weren't paid up with the utilities department, totaling in a little under $1 million in past due water service. About 700 fewer customers are in the red now, but the number of past-due fees actually ticked up slightly to around $1.1 million, according to Wilson. Though the utility department doesn't ask for reasons bills went unpaid, customer behavior spans from a missed bill to a full stop of paying the department.
"We see some customers that missed a payment back in maybe March, April, May of last year, who may not be aware that they've missed a payment due to that conversion. And then we see customers who stopped paying at the beginning of the pandemic and for unknown reasons haven't made their payments today," Wilson said.
The department's software glitch that postponed shutoffs another year stemmed from insufficient capabilities of the department under the new billing software. Errors cascaded from the department's lack of server memory and an underperforming central processing unit. Bills started being sent irregularly which made getting back to normal even more challenging.
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- The City will resume water shutoffs this July after a two year moratorium.
"A comprehensive solution was not available at the beginning because there was not a single point of failure. With every step in the process, as one issue was corrected a new set of errors would emerge that had to be addressed in order to move to the next step," Wilson wrote in an email.
The City is communicating that shutoffs will resume by sending 90-day notices to every Bend utility department customer, as well as press releases, social media posts and bill inserts. People struggling to pay back delinquent bills can get in touch with NeighborImpact, a Central Oregon nonprofit that helps economically disadvantaged households, to apply for utility assistance. So far, it's dispersed about $30,000 to 60 households out of the $200,000 set aside for utility assistance. Payment plans through the City are also an option, and allow the debt to be paid off over the next two years, but customers need to enroll before June 30.
"The only requirement is that they pay their regular monthly bill and all payment plan payments on time will not be subject to collections or water service shutoff," Wilson said. "This is new; the City has never offered this type of service before, and we urge customers who do not qualify for low-income utility assistance programs to use this to avoid water service shutoff starting July 1."
Wilson said more people are squaring up their bills already, and she expects the return of water shutoffs to spur the department into more normal conditions within the next two months. Though the department received over $1 million less in revenues than projected in its budget, it anticipated increased levels of "bad debt." That, and decreased expenditures, kept the utility department able to keep up with services and projects even with lost revenue.
"In 2021 the total revenues for the Water Fund were about $1.7 million less than budgeted but expenditures were also lower than budgeted by $6.5 million — for a myriad of reasons such as personnel savings due to vacancies, unneeded materials and services or repairs and maintenance budgeted that did not materialize, timing differences in capital spending — so the lack of revenue as budgeted did not prevent expenditures for services or projects to stop," Wilson wrote.