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Lynchburg City Council talks utility bill cutoffs, school employee bonuses

Lynchburg City Council talks utility bill cutoffs, school employee bonuses

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As Lynchburg continues to see a steady increase of households behind on water bills month-to-month, city council discussed when to resume cutoffs that have been halted since March.

Some councilors voiced concerns that continuing to delay penalties or cutoffs for delinquent accounts would only incentivize customers to delay paying their utility bills.

At the Tuesday meeting, Ward III Councilman Jeff Helgeson said without a cutoff date, the numbers will only continue to rise.

According to updated figures Chief Finance Officer Donna Witt presented to council, 1,093 accounts — or a little more than 4% of the city’s 24,000 water customers — currently are late on payment and are subject to possible disconnection. Last month, the number of delinquent accounts was 1,085.

Witt said the late customers owe $223,984 total to the city. About half of the delinquent accounts owe a balance of $100 or more. The average cost of a monthly water bill for a family of four is about $73.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the city generally saw about 250 to 350 delinquent accounts at any one time.

Council has continued to defer setting a date to resume cutoffs, in part because there is a potential that legislation from the General Assembly special session could affect what actions the city can take regarding cutoffs or late fees.

On Tuesday, there was a consensus council would work to set a cutoff date at the November meeting.

Ward IV Councilman Chris Faraldi said it was important to set a deadline, fearing otherwise council would continue “kicking the ball down the road.”

Although more residents have applied for aid in October than the month before, it was still only a small fraction of the delinquent accounts, said Witt.

From the end of August to early October, 21 accounts had received assistance from various city nonprofits — such as Interfaith Outreach Association, Fairview Church and the Salvation Army — totaling about $4,479 of assistance.

Prior to October, only 11 accounts had sought and received pledges from nonprofits.

Witt encouraged more residents to reach out to nonprofits such as Miriam’s House, Lynchburg Community Action Group and Interfaith Outreach.

Also on Tuesday, city council approved the appropriation of more than $4 million from the unexpended fiscal year 2020 schools operating fund for transfer to its current year operating fund, capital fund and textbook reserve.

About $1.4 million from the fund balance will be dedicated to Lynchburg City Schools employee bonuses unanimously approved by the school board last week.

Other expenses include new vehicles, remote learning equipment and upcoming CIP projects, including a facilities study.

Vice Mayor Beau Wright motioned for approval of the appropriations, and said particularly with city staff bonuses approved in August, it made sense to also include LCS bonuses and other “nuts and bolts” items.

Per an agreement signed by council and the school board in the 1990s that provided for the creation of the fund balance to underwrite “occasional shortfalls” in the LCS budget, Wright said this action was in line with the historic practice.

Helgeson, the only council member to vote against the appropriation, said he did not think the bonuses were “prudent” and he would like to see the funds sequestered or put to other uses.

“I think it’s a slap in the face for people who have been struggling hard and want their children back in school,” he said.

Recalling an analogy he first made in a September meeting while discussing the system’s “Return to Learn” plan, Helgeson said, “Instead of ordering your filet mignon and you get a Happy Meal, we’re going to get half of a Happy Meal, and we’re going to charge double the price of a filet mignon.”

He added it’s not a matter of teachers not “trying,” but that the “product” the students are receiving is not of the same quality as 100% in-person learning.

Wright and other councilors again pushed back against Helgeson’s concerns, with Wright adding it was fair for school employees to receive this bonus as well as city staff, and that the other expenditures are worthy items like maintenance and increased resources for remote learning.

“I don’t know when we decided that schools should become the political punching bag,” Wright said. “They’re not. They provide an essential service and we need them in our community, and we need to support them.”

If you want the filet mignon, he said, you have to be willing to pay for it.

Faraldi voted in favor of the appropriation but added in the future he would like to look more closely at the school system’s “reliance” on these budgetary amendments and the overall process.

The motion passed with a 5-1 vote. At-large Councilwoman Treney Tweedy was not in attendance.

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