By Brandon Martin
Over the course of a month, approximately 600 combined city and Public Service Authority (PSA) customers were disconnected from services, according to local officials.
While the State Corporation Commission (SCC) set guidelines concerning the disconnection of utilities during the coronavirus pandemic, the localities are not bound by the guidelines.
Before disconnections began, both Henry County and the City of Martinsville earmarked Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds through the Henry-Martinsville Department of Social Services to help struggling utility customers.
County Administrator Tim Hall said that since Sept. 1, approximately 450 customers had been impacted.
“This includes both residential and commercial accounts,” he said. “Keep in mind that the PSA has more than 19,000 active water and/or sewer accounts. The vast majority of those 450 have already been re-connected.”
City Manager Leon Towarnicki said that only residential customers have been impacted in the city so far.
The number of disconnections started off small, with only seven disconnections per week for the first two weeks, according to Towarnicki. The following three weeks averaged 43 disconnections per week. Overall, there have been 143 cut-offs in the city.
Towarnicki said that he didn’t have any information about whether customers had set up a repayment plan to qualify for assistance through social services.
“If they had a repayment plan in place, they would not have been disconnected to begin with,” Towarnicki said. “But it’s possible some of those customers may have attempted to set that up after they were disconnected.”
Hall said that “surprisingly” there have been few customers who have set up a repayment plan or contacted social services for assistance.
“I’d say fewer than 10 payment plans are in place right now, and at last check, only 26 PSA account holders have taken advantage of the money at social services,” Hall said. “The other accounts have been addressed by the customers paying the full amounts owed.”
Initially, the county donated $200,000 from CARES funds to social services.
“That fund is open to all county residents and can be used for other utility payments in addition to the PSA, so some customers of other utilities have taken advantage of that opportunity,” Hall said.
He estimated that $175,000 remains from that initial investment.
Similarly, Towarnicki said that about $120,000 of the city’s initial $150,000 investment to social services remains untouched, which means that at least 80 percent of both donations have yet to be claimed.
On Dec. 30, all unused CARES funds revert to the federal government.
“The CARES funds are for those impacted by the pandemic, but even if not impacted, the city will still work with customers on a repayment plan,” Towarnicki said. “The goal is to keep customers connected and work them to the extent possible, to get caught up.”
Towarnicki added that the city has also provided funds to both the Grace Network and Salvation Army that can be used to help with other needs.
Given the amount of untouched funds and the time spent by staff to make them available, Towarnicki said that “it’s obviously disappointing to work diligently to provide a means to help those in need, but to not see customers taking advantage of that opportunity.
“All we can do is make the effort and be sure the information is out there, but at the end of the day it’s a customer’s personal decision regarding whether to accept the help or not,” he added.
While the city and county have taken individual strides to help residents, Hall has his eye on statewide legislation that could change things.
“There is legislation in front of the special session of the General Assembly that could alter what disconnection policies look like going forward, and that could have an impact on us,” Hall said. “But our staff has been around a long time and we’ve seen a lot of things over the years, so we are flexible. We can adapt to anything.”