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City goes after late bills: Shut-off notices garner fee

Posted: Friday, January 29, 2010

The Soldotna City Council took action to crack down on citizens who fail to pay their utility bills.

At Wednesday's meeting, the council approved an ordinance that establishes a $20 fee any time the city has to hang a shut-off notice at the residence of a delinquent account.

The ordinance also changes language in the city code to establish firm deadlines for payment due dates.

The city posts a shut-off notice after a water and sewer bill has gone unpaid for two months. On the third month's billing, the city will hang the notice. Under the new ordinance, which passed unanimously, that notice now carries a $20 fee.

"A number of these folks are repeat customers, meaning they do this consistently. The fee is designed to discourage that behavior and compensate for the lost time," Larry Semmens, Soldotna city manager, said.

City finance director Melanie Lewis said the city had to hang approximately 60 shut-off notices last month, costing Soldotna dollars and energy.

"It seems like we are getting more and more (unpaid bills), and our utility department is spending such a great deal of time hanging these every month," Lewis said Thursday. "It's unfair for the whole city to have to pay the cost of that."

The ordinance also adjusted the city code to specify that utility bills are now to be paid by the 26th of each month instead of 25 days after the billing date. The intent of the change is to simplify the billing process and create a universal approach.

"We're just trying to streamline how we're doing business," Lewis said. "It simplifies our ability to manage. If we went off the postmark due dates, we have to manually go into each account to see when the payment was due. We're trying to improve that process."

Lewis said her office generally administers bills on the first day of the month.

The city council also approved a land swap between the city and the council's vice mayor's parents to facilitate the development of Soldotna Creek Park.

The deal provides David and Linda Hutchings a 5,552 square-foot plat of land in exchange for a 2,628 square-foot plat. The deal also includes the city giving $10,000 to the Hutchings to help pay the cost of paving the Hutchings' new land.

The city is interested in the land exchange because the deal would be cost effective in the city's development project. The savings results from being able to remodel a current entranceway at the park rather than needing to design a new one.

Soldotna Mayor Peter Micciche requested vice mayor J. Shea Hutchings abstain from the vote due to a conflict of interest. That ruling came two weeks after the council allowed Hutchings to participate in discussions of the land swap.

"Shea Hutchings is an honorable man, but cash turned it from a gray issue to a black and white issue, even if it's just a matter of perception," Micciche said Thursday. "The reason for the change was that at the last meeting it was not clear that there was going to be cash involved. The deal last night involved $10,000."

City code says a conflict of interest occurs when an employee or member of the governing body has a "substantial financial interest" in the matter being discussed. Code defines substantial financial interest as any contract exceeding $300.

Hutchings said he was somewhat surprised by the mayor's decision, if only because he thought the issue had been resolved two weeks ago.

"It took me by a little bit of surprise," Hutchings said Thursday, "but ultimately the motion carried and what it saved us from is having to relocate the entrance, which is the ultimate goal."

Andrew Waite can be reached at andrew.waite@peninsulaclarion.com



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