LEBANON — City Councilor Margaret Campbell called the city’s recent water billing issues “a public relations nightmare” during Wednesday night’s meeting.
She suggested that the city consider taking out a newspaper advertisement to apologize to city residents who in January received an unexpected notice that beginning immediately, they would be charged a late fee if payments were not received by the 15th of the month.
Although water bills have for years been due and payable upon receipt, residents were given a grace period until the 15th of the month, leading to most people believing that was the actual due date.
So, when the city sent out a letter indicating there would be a penalty if the bills hadn’t paid by then, people were confused.
“They didn’t realize they had actually already had a two-week grace period, not one day,” Finance Director Dean Baugh said after the meeting.
Baugh said the system has led to people falling further and further behind in their payments. His department sends out about 5,500 utility bills per month.
Despite negative reactions from the public and phone calls to city staff and councilors, Baugh told the council the proposed new rules have an immediate positive effect from a financial standpoint.
“We had 400 fewer penalties in February than January,” Baugh said. “We have people whose bills have never been current, are now current. It’s working.”
Baugh said that city staff usually places 250 to 280 door hanger notices warning residents of impending water shut-offs per month.
“Last month, that was down to 186,” Baugh said. “This is actually saving people money.”
Baugh added that the city has provided residents with several payment options, ranging from regular office hours of 7 a.m. to 5 p.m, drop boxes outside City Hall and in Safeway and the Lebanon Senior Center, online or automatic bill pay through their bank or credit union.
New due date and late payment procedures will be:
• First day of the month: Bills are due and payable for the prior month’s water/sewer service.
• 15th day of the month: Bills become past due.
• 18th day of the month: Late fee of $10 assessed to any bills with an unpaid balance.
• 22nd day of the month: Door hangers placed on all properties with an unpaid balance. Additional fee of $15 added to unpaid balance.
• 29th to 31st days of the month: Water service may be terminated for any unpaid bills.
City resident Ralph Gaston said during a public comment period at the end of the meeting that he felt the city process “was strong-armed extortion.”
He said many families are struggling to pay for life’s basics due to the continued economic recession.
“Water service is a basic right,” Gaston said. “I believe the city was too aggressive. The water department is owned by the citizens of Lebanon and city staff operates it for us.”