11/30/11 — Water district change prompts mass shut-off

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Water district change prompts mass shut-off

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on November 30, 2011 1:46 PM

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Allison Carter

Hundreds of Wayne County residents crowded the courthouse Tuesday to discuss changes in the Wayne Water Sanitary District's rules that required residents to get their water bills current -- or face water cutoff. More than 680 people had their water turned off Tuesday.

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Chastity Cerny, left, and her son Jacob, bottom left, stand in line Tuesday at the Wayne Water District office. She and many other customers were surprised by the water cutoffs.

Wayne Water Sanitary District customers who have leaned heavily on grace periods in recent months might no longer have that luxury now that the company has begun cutting off water to homes the day after payment becomes past due.

More than 700 Belfast-Patetown Sanitary District customers were scheduled to have their water disconnected yesterday and today thanks to the enforcement of a policy that for years has allowed customers to continue receiving service despite late payments.

But customers across the county will soon face mass lockouts of service now that any bills past due will result in discontinuation of service.

Customers in the Southwestern Wayne Sanitary District must pay off their accounts in full by Dec. 5 or risk a Dec. 6 cutoff, while Southeastern Wayne patrons have until Dec. 12 to avoid losing service the following day. Customers in the Eastern Wayne and Northwestern Wayne districts must pay off their accounts by Dec. 27 or face disconnection on Dec. 28.

In March, Wayne Water District personnel began sending out fliers to customers advertising changes in payment options.

The flier explained that the district would no longer be accepting payments at BB&T or at its Charlotte post office box and included information at the bottom concerning late fees. Effective with the November bill, $5 late fees would be assessed on all accounts not paid by the due date and an additional service fee of $25 would be added to the account if payment was not received 10 days after the due date along with the account being subject to disconnection of service.

A second flier, which was sent out in April, reiterated the 10-day rule, but delayed the enforcement of the $5 late fee until January 2012.

Prior to the enforcement change, customers had three months of bills before they were cut off. In September, the grace period was reduced to two, and with the November bill, it became one.

Customers lined up outside the district office Tuesday and Wednesday, however, insisted they had not seen the fliers.

But Joey Threewitts, operations manager for Wayne Water, said the policy was not new -- its enforcement in a single day was the only novelty during this billing period.

"Anytime there is a past due balance they can be cut off. This policy has been in place since day one," he said.

Threewitts said what likely happened was that customers had paid off their October bills, but did not notice a note near the bottom of their November bill indicating that service would be discontinued if their account was not paid in full by 5 p.m. Nov. 28.

The note, just above the portion of the bill that is to be detached and sent away with payment, states that if there is any past due amount, water service will be disconnected Nov. 29 and a $25 service fee will be assessed.

Yakouba Niandou, who works in billing, said the mass lockout on Tuesday was an effort to treat all delinquent customers equally.

"It's unfair to do it over a week," he said, which is the typical approach the district has taken to disconnections.

Niandou said the other approach allowed certain customers to have extra days and, in some cases, weeks, to pay off their account balance without losing service while others were shut off immediately.

Threewitts said 680 accounts were locked out Tuesday, while workers were unable to get to the remaining 31 meters until today.

More than 400 customers had their water service restored yesterday after hundreds crowded the district office. All customers who were in the building by 5 p.m. and paid their late fees had their water working again by this morning, Threewitts said.

But it likely won't be the last mass shutoff, as the Belfast-Patetown district is only the first district in the cycle. All other Wayne Water districts will undergo the same procedure beginning with their November bill.

Payment is due 15 days after the billing date, which, in the case of Belfast-Patetown customers this month was Nov. 3. There is a 10-day grace period after that date, Nov. 18, meaning the final deadline to avoid loss of service was Nov. 28.

But why begin enforcing the rules so strictly now? District Manager Steve Hamilton said it's to avoid bad debt and write-offs that come from late payments.

"People move, and we have to write it off," Hamilton explained. "We've had rate increases due to regulation changes at the state level. Rates have gone up, our dues have gone up, and our write-offs, so it's not a good situation."

Hamilton said that 85 percent of customers pay on time and delinquent payments were causing that portion of the customers to be responsible for the entire district, while the remaining 15 percent had service constantly despite inconsistent payments.

"We're like any other utility," he said, noting that cable, power and telephone customers who don't keep up with payments also lose service.

Hamilton and Office Manager Barbara Petersen were out of town at a customer service seminar in Carrboro during the service lockouts -- something Hamilton said was unfortunate.

"We didn't anticipate the response," he said, adding the two had been trying to get to the class for some time. "We underestimated the number people coming in to pay their bills."