July 4, 2020 7:55:18 PM
Columbus Light and Water has been disconnecting the service of 40 to 50 customers a day due to unpaid bills, a 50-percent increase from its normal volume of shutoffs.
CLW General Manager Todd Gale said the rise is a natural consequence of ending a three-month ban on shutoffs because of COVID-19 a few weeks ago, saying the volume of disconnections is "catching up" for customers who were in arrears prior to or during the pandemic. Before the virus hit, the utility performed roughly 30 shutoffs a day. Those numbers include both power and water customers.
Current numbers mean 1,200 to 1,500 customers could be shut off over the course of a 30-day billing cycle. Gale said at the utility's April 16 board meeting that 8 percent of CLW's 12,500 customers -- more than 1,000 -- were at risk of being disconnected, though shutoffs were then banned statewide by order of Gov. Tate Reeves.
CLW has implemented a repayment plan where customers behind on payments can split the amount they owe over the next several months' bills. Delinquent customers have until July 23 to make those arrangements, and around 250 people have already made them, Gale said.
But many others haven't, and they paid the price of disconnection. Gale said most customers whose service is shut off end up paying to restore it the same day, not wanting to go without power long.
"Some people just wait until the last minute," he said.
Gale said the utility's current volume of shutoffs will likely hold steady for the near future.
"Unless something else changes or happens, I feel like we'll probably be in it for about another month at least," Gale said.
4-County, SUD hold steady
Despite CLW's recent increase in disconnections, representatives from 4-County Electric Power Association and the Starkville Utilities Department said the number of shutoffs at both utilities has remained roughly normal.
According to 4-County Marketing and Public Relations Director Jon Turner, about 2.5 percent -- roughly 1,000 of some 39,000 customers -- are currently subject to disconnection, which is on track with pre-pandemic numbers.
SUD General Manager Terry Kemp said his utility disconnects roughly 100 of its 14,000 electric and 12,000 water customers (many of whom overlap) per week -- 5 percent above the typical volume.
"All in all, it is higher than normal, but it's not much different," Kemp said.
Turner said he saw more delayed payments during the shutdown caused by the pandemic as customers were aided by Reeves' temporary ban on disconnections.
"If there were people out there struggling to pay their bill or couldn't pay their bill at that time, the ability to put it off for a while helped them," Turner said. "Those people who did that, who moved those payments off, honestly needed to and now are trying to make good as much as they can."
Kemp said most of SUD's customers have already made arrangements to rectify their overdue balances, which he said will ultimately serve them well.
"The more customers do on a regular basis, it makes them better off in the long run," he said.
Those who need to make arrangements at 4-County can do so online, in person, over the phone, by mail or at one of the utility's kiosks. Turner said 4-County has options to break overdue payments over one or three months with no interest fees and offers a prepay program as well.
With phone dispatchers available 24 hours a day, Turner said there are chances for customers who are disconnected at odd hours to get back online faster without having to wait.
"It's not like they have to wait to pay on Monday if they get cut out on a weekend," Turner said. "There are ways."
Like Gale, Turner said he has seen most customers who get disconnected return right away to make amends.
"Nobody wants to get disconnected," Turner said. "They do what they can as soon as they can to get power turned back on. Nobody wants to see that happen."
No current plans to change
Despite a surge of COVID-19 cases in Mississippi -- the state department of health reported 914 cases Thursday alone -- none of the three utilities currently plan to institute another ban on shutoffs or other measures deployed during the pandemic.
But none was willing to rule it out entirely.
Gale said CLW would have to look at revisiting the ban on shutoffs, saying that things seem to be getting worse every day in a situation that is already fluid. He said CLW will monitor what the federal government does and "roll with the punches" to come.
Turner, who said the inability to pay over the past few months was due more to the economic shutdown caused by the statewide shelter in place order than to rising case numbers alone, said the utility would "follow the same protocol" or create an additional plan in the case of another sharp increase.
"We always look at situations that negatively impact our membership and try to do what's right for a majority of people," he said.
Kemp said SUD is closely monitoring connections, disconnections and payments, but nothing is giving the utility pause at the moment and there are no current plans to change collection practices.
Theo DeRosa reports on high school sports and Mississippi State softball for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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