The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

July 17, 2013

Ambiguous utility policy frustrates councilman Knight


TARBORO — LaKeisha Freeman was relieved that the Town of Tarboro changed its utilities disconnect policy July 8. However, the change came three months too late.

Freeman, who said she was laid off, had her lights disconnected in April for not paying her $248 bill. Freeman said she rushed to town hall to pay on the cutoff date, but was 10 minutes too late. Unfortunately, more bad news followed — additional fees had incurred. Freeman's new bill was $248 plus a $600 deposit and a $50 service charge.

"If I couldn't afford to pay $248, where was I going to get $600?" Freeman asked. "That's ridiculous."

Freeman said that was the first time her lights were turned off, therefore, she asked for an extension.

After Freeman read a story printed in the July 10 edition of The Daily Southerner titled, "Short agenda doesn’t mean short council meeting," she was livid. In that story, the council adopted a resolution to reduced the deposit to $200. The most disturbing for Freeman was a quote from Mayor Donald Morris that addressed the extension policy.

“I thought we voted to discontinue that in 2009,” he said. Morris was told the extension policy had been eliminated but it “has crept back into use.”

"When I asked for an extension, they told me that I could not get one," Freeman said. "Why didn't they give me an option?"

The town council has been discussing its utility polices since March. Councilman Taro Knight brought up the issue after several citizens came to him with complaints about the astronomical deposit fees.

According to the town's policy, the first time an account is cut off, a delinquent deposit must equal an average of two months bill. Each time after, deposits have to equal the two highest bills in a 12-month period.

"Some of the utilities bills are $300 to $500," Knight said. "If, unfortunately, some customers are cut off, they have to pay that bill plus another $500 or $600. They can't come up with that kind of money.

"They said this policy was put in place to catch people who repeatedly attempt to get over on the system. Those people are going to do what they do regardless of the policy. What this policy has done is put an extra burden on people who are on fixed income, low wage employees, recently laid off workers and the unemployed. There are also some very hard working people who have to buy medicine and have fallen on hard times. The new policy will give some relief to them and it will not become a burden on the Town of Tarboro."

Knight said he's disappointed that the issue had not been addressed by previous boards. He pointed out that the town’s utility collection rate is 99.84 percent from the town’s 6,000 customers.

Town Manager Alan Thornton said that calculates up to about $2 million to $3 million a month that the town pays Electricities for the utility service.

"Unless we have a high collection rate, we will fall behind," he said.  

Knight introduced a resolution during the town's July meeting that reduced the deposit to $200. The item unanimously passed.

During the town's April meeting. Councilman Garland Shepherd said the town is losing $30,000 to $40,000 per year because people are not paying.

Thornton said he's "fine" with the new policy.

"As the administrator of the policy, our desire is for the policy to be as fair and effective as possible and to make sure that the collection rate remains high," Thornton said. "Time will tell whether the new policy is effective or not. Hopefully it will be."

Knight is also disturbed by the change of the extension policy.  

"How did that happen?," he asked. "It didn't come before the board, that I'm aware of. The town council sets the policies. The extension policy should not have been changed.

"The utility problem is not the only thing that we need to address. We have to look at all of our policies to make sure we are doing what best for all our citizens."