By Brandon Martin
With the State Corporation Commission’s (SCC) ban on utility cut-offs set to expire on Aug. 31 and no extension yet given, Henry County Public Service Authority (PSA) General Manager and County Administrator Tim Hall said that the continuation of service terminations are set to begin Sept. 1 for delinquent PSA customers.
Hall said that like most other localities to receive Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, the county has given $200,000 to social services to help residents pay off their debts.
“You can go to social services with your latest bill, show that to them,” and “they will verify it and send the utility a check directly. They don’t send it to you so you can go out and buy candy and popcorn. We think that is a pretty good way to do it. Everybody gets paid. The bill gets paid. There’s a third party in charge of measuring them and making sure it’s accurate,” he said.
As the date for disconnections approaches, Hall encouraged anyone with delinquent accounts to reach out to social services for financial assistance.
Darrell Jones, finance director, said that his staff compiled a “cut-off” list for July even though termination of services did not occur, to see “how we stood.
“That list has grown even further than last month. We would have cut off 530 accounts with a balance of $110,522. So that list continues to grow,” he added.
When disconnections are continued, “we are going to have to have a strategy on how we tackle this because it’s going to be huge,” Jones said.
He added the biggest risk for the PSA is if those who have not paid their balance move out of the area.
“As long as they are on our service, we have a chance of collecting what we can collect but those who are moving out of the area,” will be more problematic, Jones added.
On a related note, Hall read a copy of a bill to be introduced during the General Assembly’s special session that outlines steps for localities to set up an emergency debt repayment plan.
“If this gets imposed on utilities, this will be a procedural headache for us, as well as any other utilities,” Hall said, adding that he expects the bill to be signed into law since it has the support of the majority in both chambers.
“It states that every utility providing electric, gas, or water service — notice that it does not mention wastewater – shall develop an emergency debt repayment plan for residential customers,” Hall said.
He said that means the PSA will have to set up a repayment plan with any customer “that wishes to have one” for a delinquent account. He said the plans could last up to 24 months with monthly payments “not to exceed $45.50 a month,” or four percent of the customer’s household income. The amount would be based on whichever number is greater.
Interest and finance charges cannot be charged on the unpaid debt while the customer is enrolled, according to Hall. He added that services also cannot be disconnected providing the customer complies with the terms of the repayment plan.
Additionally, Hall said the potential law would be applicable “anytime the governor declares a state of emergency in response to a communicable disease of public health threat.”
Hall said that each utility would be required to submit a monthly report to the SCC. Reports must contain the “number of accounts remaining in total and by customer class, the total amount of and average of debt for the account, the number of accounts removed from the EDRP categorized by reason — for instance, if they paid it back or choose to opt out, the amount of and average of debt still remaining on the accounts, utilities anticipated for bad debt write off for the EDRP compared to any non-bad debt write off.”
The objective of the bill, according to Hall, is to force utilities not to disconnect services for non-payment of bills incurred or not received during an emergency declaration for a communicable disease.
While not explicitly said in the bill, Hall said he suspects that the customer will still have to pay their current month bill along with the specified amount required to settle the past due portion.
The bill would encompass any utility debts that have been incurred by the customer since the declaration of the current emergency which “would be March,” Hall said.
PSA Chairman Gerry Lawicki said the bill “is going to set up an administrative nightmare.”
Hall said that he is uncertain of the fate of the county’s current plan involving social services, should the bill be signed into law. He also noted that the plan to move forward with disconnection of services on Sept. 1 could be affected by the actions taken by the General Assembly.
During his financial report, Jones discussed additional challenges.
Water sales and waste treatment sales are both ahead of budget as of July, but Jones noted that the budget was “tremendously lower than our expectations.”
He added that the budget included an anticipated 10 percent loss in revenue.
“It’s good that we are ahead of that, but it’s bad that we had to budget for it,” Jones said.
In terms of revenue collected this July compared to July 2019, Jones said water sales were down 5.66 percent and sewer sales were down 8.63 percent.
“Finally, the PSA “is strong” and “we can continue to weather this for substantially longer. Still, it sort of hurts your feelings to watch the receivables grow and the accounts that need to be disconnected,” Jones said. Financially we are strong enough to weather this storm for significantly longer. Not that that is a pleasant thing to do, but we can.”
The board also heard updates on existing projects by Tim Pace, director of engineering, and Mike Ward, director of regulatory compliance.
*Meter upgrades: According to Pace, the PSA’s radio read system continues to work well, reading the entire system in 4 to 5 days. The first phase of the large meter replacement project is underway, with about 26 of 35 replaced to date. Pace also said that staff has met with partners to discuss the fixed based system for the Collinsville area. Approximately 6,400 meters will be read from the Ferndale Tank site. Proposals for installation and implementation are currently being developed.
*Fieldale Lead Service Project: Pace said that Prillaman and Pace has installed approximately 85 percent of the new water line. Phase II is expected to be completed within the next 45 days. Design and environmental activities are underway for Phase III, and Pace said he expects to bid the project this fall.
*Preston Road water line extension: Line design and right-of-way research continues, according to Pace. He added that many sections of the roadways have 30- feet right of ways, and easements will be required for about 60 percent of the project. Initial project notices were sent out and future correspondence will be mailed once the project is further along, Pace said, adding easement packets should be mailed within the next two weeks.
*Elf Trail water line and tank: Pace said that all easements have been obtained. The project on Preston Road’s water line extension must be completed before this project begins. He expects the project to be bid on as soon as Department of Environmental Quality and Virginia Department of Transportation permits are obtained. Initial notices were sent to residents along the new water line route, and Patrick County has issued a letter of support due to the location of a few properties along the route.
*Patriot Centre–Lots 4 and 9N: Engineering staff is in the process of developing plans to extend water and sewer to the lots, according to Pace, who added that a grant application has been submitted to the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.
*Philpott Reallocation Study: Ward said that PSA staff worked with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) on a demand analysis for the federally funded study. USACE submitted their draft analysis to PSA for review, according to Ward.
*EPA proposed lead and copper rule changes: Ward said that the Revised Lead and Copper Rule is scheduled to be released to the public by the end of September. He said that based on conversation with state regulators, it is anticipated that few public comments will be incorporated into the final rule.
*Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) regulation: Staff is tracking the development of regulations for these substances in water and wastewater treatment, Ward said. Previous testing for PFAS at the Philpott plant in 2015 were below detectable levels; however, this was before the Environmental Protection Agency setting the criteria of 70 nanograms/liter, according to Ward. He added that PSA staff will be sitting on water and wastewater committees developing the regulations.
*Philpott Water Plant expansion: Shook Construction continues to work at the water plant and the raw water pump station, according to Ward. He said the issues with the raw water pumps have been resolved and the project is approximately 93 percent complete.
*Telemetry upgrade: Ward said that Microcomm, Inc., and PSA staff are working on the necessary upgrades to the PSA telemetry that was approved in the fiscal year 2020 capital budget. He said the new equipment is being installed, and work is near 50 percent complete.
*Drinking water systems: Ward said that all parameters were within compliance for July at the Philpott Water Plant. The 12-month running annual average water loss (non-revenue water) was 34.3 percent or 32.3 million gallons. For the individual month of July, it was 31.9 percent or 31.5 million gallons. Taste and odor complaints have dropped significantly since the plant started feeding powdered activated carbon, according to Ward. He said staff has started to reduce the feed rate to optimize quality and cost. Raw water testing also shows that the compounds that cause taste and odor have been dropping significantly, Ward added.