By Brandon Martin
Although the State Corporation Commission (SCC) extended the non-mandatory guidelines for a moratorium on utility cutoffs until Sept. 16, the City of Martinsville will begin disconnections for delinquent accounts beginning Sept. 1.
City Manager Leon Towarnicki said the city generally follows SCC guidelines, but it is not bound to do so. Following the third extension and discussions with staff, he said that the city has various reasons to break from the guidelines.
Towarnicki said that delinquent accounts normally amount to approximately $60,000. “As of about a week ago, we were pushing about $500,000.”
A main concern with the extended moratorium is that the longer it lasts, the harder it will be for customers to pay their bills, Towarnicki said. Extending the disconnection moratorium is “basically just going to give people another two weeks of not having to pay utilities,” he added.
“We have made an aggressive effort throughout the month of August to reach out to all of those delinquent customers for utilities to talk to our utility billing office about a repayment plan,” Towarnicki said.
At the last count, Towarnicki said more than 200 customers that have complied and set up a repayment plan.
“So, we already have a substantial” number of customers “ we have on a utility repayment plan,” he said.
Those customers who have signed up are required to pay their current bill, Towarnicki said, and explained “the amount that is delinquent in our case, we are looking at probably a 9-month repayment so that we can finish up this fiscal year.”
In addition to the current bill, customers could “divide by nine and make nine equal payments” as part of the repayment plan, Towarnicki said, and added those customers will not pay additional late fees as long as the terms of the repayment plan are met.
“Those customers that have not reached out to us and made no effort to contact the billing office to work out a repayment plan or shown no interest in trying to help themselves, they are going to be on the disconnect list,” Towarnicki said and added that it would take a significant period of time to work through the disconnection list.
Towarnicki said that since the city does not do utility disconnections during colder months, some customers haven’t paid since November — which was extended by the moratorium due to the pandemic.
“They’ve just kind of taken advantage of this moratorium which has extended now through the end of August,” Towarnicki said.
He also noted that the city intends to provide “probably somewhere on the order of $150,000 to $200,000” to the Department of Social Services for customers with a repayment plan to access.
“If you have a repayment plan, you will be eligible to receive CARES Act money through the Department of Social Services. That’s even more incentive for someone who has a delinquency to set up a payment plan because then they would be eligible for CARES money,” Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson asked.
“That is correct,” Towarnicki said, and later added that a two-page application is required for funds through social services, “with mostly account information” and a “section where you basically just have to provide some sort of explanation for how you were impacted by COVID and how that has impacted your ability to pay utilities.”
Vice Mayor Chad Martin asked about other city efforts to help residents through Grace Network.
Out of the $15,000 allocated to Grace Network, Towarnicki said that “a little under $4,000” has been used.
“We can’t stress enough for people to get on that repayment plan,” Martin said.
“Absolutely, if you are on the repayment plan, then you are safe,” Towarnicki said. “You’re either on the repayment plan or you are on the disconnect list. You’re one of the two, so your better option is definitely to be on the repayment plan.”
Council Member Jennifer Bowles said that she was fully behind the city’s efforts “going above and beyond to make sure they have these funds. Let’s say the funds we give to social services are depleted. I’ll be the first one to ask that we apply more money to that. So, I will say to all of the citizens at home that you have to take the first step. Make the repayment plan.”
Council Member Danny Turner said he was doubtful of the plan’s efficacy.
“They are not going to get the money,” Turner said. “We’ve got to put something out there that people can live with, and they’ve also got to deal with maintaining their rent.”
Towarnicki said a repayment plan can be made by calling utility billing at (276) 403-5146. “A telephone call is all it takes.”
In other matters:
*Greg Suire, president of the Martinsville Mustangs, gave a presentation on the team’s 2020 season and the upcoming plans for the fall.
“This summer is a story of perseverance,” Suire said. “To be perfectly honest with you, it speaks volumes of the commitment of this city council. You can either decide to go forward or you can sit on the sideline. You decided to go forward.”
He said the team hosted 26 home games this season, bringing in teenagers and out-of-town visitors. Suire said that one game even had 18 Major League Baseball scouts in attendance.
In addition to the summer games, Suire said this fall, a new program, called “Friday Night Lights,” will debut. The program will feature the Junior Mustangs which consists of “roughly 50 young people from the Martinsville-Henry County community.”
Suire said the fall league will fill the void of high school football and run for the next six weeks, with doubleheaders each Friday at Hooker Field.
The first game of the season is Aug. 26, with games at 5:15 and 7:30 p.m. Suire said the teams will resemble Varsity and Junior Varsity (JV) teams with freshmen and sophomores typically making up the JV teams and juniors and seniors making up the varsity teams. He added that sophomores with exceptional ability will be able to play on varsity teams.
*The city recognized employees for service awards for the period July 1-Sept. 30. Those recognized were: Gary Renz for five years with the Sheriff’s Department; Michael Trail for five years with the Fire Department; Talib-Diyn Aziz for five years with the Wastewater Plant; Eric Boaz for five years with Traffic Signals; Allyson Smith for five years with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office; Anitra Huff for 10 years with the Sheriff’s Department; Joseph Haynes for 15 years with the Fire Department; Timothy Dunbar for 20 years with Sewer Maintenance; David Johnston for 20 years with Water Maintenance; Sandy Hines for 20 years with the Police Department; Kathy Reed for 25 years with Traffic Signals; Roger Shelor for 30 years with Central Garage; and Esther Adams-Artis for 35 years Information Services.
*Martin read a proclamation on Lawson’s behalf in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote.
*The city adopted a resolution setting the allocation percentage for personal property tax relief for qualifying vehicles in the city for tax year 2020, with 49.33 percent of relief applied to the first $20,000 in value of each qualifying vehicle with an assessed value more than $1,000.
*Kris Bridges, a Building and Zoning official, presented an update on progress being made regarding demolition of various structures throughout the city. Work has been completed at high visibility properties at 502 and 702 Mulberry Road; 906 and 908 Spruce St., 419 E. Church St., 1020 Brookdale St; 307 Starling Ave; and 319 Starling Ave. Bridges also shared the list of 2020 demolitions at 538, 546 and 550 Dillard St., 200 and 210 Holt St., 210 Park St., 417 Fayette St; 1007 Paul St. 17 High St. 403 Clearview Drive, 1020 and 1025 Brookdale St., 918 Myrtle Road, 804 D. St. and 700 Fourth St.