PEPPERELL -- The Department of Public Works is testing a method for offering payment plans to customers who have substantially overdue water and sewer bills.
Under the trial plan, the amount of the overdue bill would be divided by 12 and that number would be added on to each month of the customer's bill for the next 12 months. This would allow customers to pay off their overdue balances in one year.
Ken Kalinowski, director of the Department of Public Works, said the department is currently owed nearly $370,000 in water and sewer bills that are more than six months overdue, equaling about 15 percent of the department's operating budget.
He said that water and sewer rates are adjusted to account for the missing funds.
"The biggest problem with people not paying on time is that it puts a burden on the other rate payers who essentially have to compensate for maintaining the cash flow to keep up with our operating budget," he said.
As outlined for the Board of Public Works on Aug. 8, the DPW is also developing a point system to determine if customers qualify to be put on the payment plan, based on their payment history. Customers with a high point score would be prohibited from the payment plans in favor of more stringent regulations, including the lien policy, and eventually, water shut-off.
Customers who are already on a payment plan, but are not paying their bills regularly, would be removed from the payment plans. "At that point, you've lost your privilege to have a payment plan," said Kalinowski.
Those who are not paying due to financial hardship would be able to go before the Board of Public Works to plead their case, Kalinowski said.
Assistant director Laurie Stevens said the points system provides a fair way of deciding who would be eligible to be on the payment plans. "We're trying to be more consistent and give the same answers to the same people," Stevens said.
She said her office will be using the payment plan system on a trial basis over the coming months to determine if it is effective.
The department is also sending out notices to all customers this week detailing the new water shut-off policy, which was approved at the board's last meeting. The policy will be rolled out gradually, and will be used as a last resort to encourage customers to pay their water bills.
"We're just letting people know that the town now has a formal, approved, voted shut-off policy," Kalinowski said.
Board member Patrick McNabb asked if the mailings should be sent to customers with their next water and sewer bill to save money on paper and postage.
Stevens said that although the cost of the separate mailings would be about $2,000, mailing the notifications with bills would be problematic. Since not all customers are billed at the same time, it would take six months to notify all customers by this method, she said.
She also said there is a possibility that customers would overlook the notification because they are distracted by the bill.
"We feel this is the best method to be clear from start to finish," Stevens said.
Additionally, those customers with the largest outstanding balances are being notified about the possibility of their water being shut off. Stevens said the first to be notified would be those with balances of more than $1,000 that have been overdue for more than 360 days.
Kalinowski said the department hopes to eventually switch to a quarterly billing system, instead of the existing six-month billing cycle, to make it easier for customers to keep up with bills.
"We'll enforce things that have actually been around for a long time but haven't been enforced in a while. We will be starting to charge interest, we will be more aggressive with liens and we now have the shut-off policy for the most egregious offenders. It's not fair for people who are paying their bills to have to subsidize for the people who aren't," he said.
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