Two hundred eighty Jackson residents have signed up for a pilot program meant to help those behind on water and sewer payments take advantage of state assistance.
“Of those customers, 41 people have met all of the eligibility and are enrolled,” said Carla Dazet, deputy director of Public Works for the city.
“Many customers still need to make one or two more payments in order to become eligible.”
Dazet admits that fewer customers who have signed up for the program than what she had hoped and that some nonpaying customers may still think they can fly under the radar without being detected.
The city of Jackson resumed water cut-offs on Sept. 1 and some customers, mostly commercial ones, were disconnected from the system, Dazet said.
Not all 14,000 customers who are not paying their bills can be disconnected at the same time because the city’s Water Sewer Billing Administration doesn’t have the manpower to handle that number of customers at its office, especially given the coronavirus pandemic and measures taken to prevent its spread, she said.
The city should be collecting more than $6 million a month in revenue from water bills but it varies from $3 million to $5 million a month.
In July, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, together with Sally Doty, executive director of the Mississippi Public Utilities Staff, announced the program to help Jackson residents with overdue water and sewer payments receive state assistance.
During the 2021 Mississippi Legislative session, the city of Jackson requested and was granted the authority for cities with a population of 150,000 or more to adjust, release or extinguish indebtedness from customers’ water and sewer bills under certain circumstances with House Bill 359. The city worked closely with the state to define the parameters, eligibility and process for this assistance.
The law allows the assistance to continue through June 2022, and Dazet hopes to get it extended through 2024.
“I am planning to go to the (legislative) session in January and request a repealer, which would let it continue for another two years,” she said. “What that would do is allow enough time for us to manage every account that is delinquent and get everyone on a plan and get their balance paid off.”
The city has 14,000 customers who are not paying their water/sewer bills and it needs more time to take care of that number of customers, she said.
The city continues to offer two payment plans to residents who are behind on their water/sewer bills. One is the Low-Income Assistance Plan and the other is the Courtesy Payment Arrangement Plan for customers who do not quality as low income.
“People have to be paying into the system to receive assistance,” Dazet said. “People have to play by the rules. They have to pay into the system, pay their bills on time and we’ll be able to help them.”
A customer must pay the last three months of bills to be eligible for a plan. The goal is to change a customer’s behavior so that nonpayment of bills is not an option he or she would consider, she said.
Under the Low-Income Assistance Plan, a customer who owes a $5,000 bill and meets all of the guidelines would end up paying a toal of $240 over a 24-month period, Dazet said.
A Stranded Bills-Flat Rate is being established for those who know they have a balance but have not recently received a bill. The Water Sewer Billing Administration can put customers on a flat rate so that payments may begin in order for a customer to participate in one of the programs.
Dazet encourages customers with any billing issues to contact the Water Sewer Billing Administration at 601-960-2000 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line that includes billing issue. They may also appear in person at the Water Sewer Business Administration Office at Metrocenter.
Some issues cannot be resolved with one visit to the office, she said, but a customer service representative can note an issue and get the ball rolling should further investigation be needed.
The city is moving ahead with plans to improve water sewer billing service.
In August, a field audit of water customers began to determine meters in the ground and more. It is an ongoing project that will take most of the year.
Some new commercial water meters were installed last week, she said and that will continue, she said. The business installing the meters plans a full communications plan about the work being done.
In mid-October, the city plans to introduce a new digital system that will allow water sewer customers to sign in, manage and pay their accounts, Dazet said.
The system will be similar to those used by power companies such as Entergy, she said.
Customers will be able to view water usage, sign up for email alerts about water leaks and pay their bills online using debit or credit cards, she said.