In an attempt to do its part to ease expected financial strains on families and businesses resulting from the coronavirus emergency, Palm Coast government is suspending late fees levied on utility bills effective immediately, and will not cut off service to customers who are behind on their payments. The measure is in effect until further notice.
The city shuts off water to upwards of 300 customers a week for late payments that exceed two months. (Water is shut off on the 61st day of a cycle). And late fees amount to either $5 or 1.5 percent of the past-due balance, whichever is greater.
“I think we recognize that there’s going to be a lot of hardship–there already is a lot of hardship–with families and businesses,” City Manager Matt Morton said this afternoon. The city’s measure is a way to lessen the “intensity of the financial and health impacts of this unprecedented crisis.”
Customers are still expected to pay past-due balances that pre-date the emergency. The temporary forgiveness is for bills going forward, and the forgiveness doesn’t mean that the bills themselves will be forgiven–just the past due fees. Customers who end up letting their bills accrue could risk a substantial debt that will be owed the city, but the city is also providing various avenues to customers to seek help paying off their utility bills. (See below.)
The city announced the new system early this evening.
“Today, we are helping ensure that our citizens will have access to clean and safe water for drinking, hand washing and keeping their families safe,” Mayor Milissa Holland said in a release. “We have witnessed unprecedented actions in the last few days, and as a community, we recognize that our families and businesses may face hardships as a result of the changes being implemented to slow the spread of this disease.”
The $45 million city utility draws most of its annual revenue from monthly water and sewer charges, with about $1 million generated from other charges. Morton said the utility is in a very sound financial position, as is the city.
“As a city they’re exceptionally healthy,” Morton said.
The city’s general fund has a 24 percent reserve, though the general fund is not impacted by the utility’;s finances: the utility operates as its own, separate business, with no money drawn from or into the general fund, where taxpayers’ property tax revenue goes. In other words, the city’s forgiveness program is not being subsidized by taxpayers, but by rate-payers. They happen to be one and the same to a large extent, but the funds are separate.
“This is a time that we’re definitely engaged with working and partnering with our residents in any way we can,” Morton said, “and as the mayor said, together we’re going to find a path forward, and it’s gonna take this community to do that.” (The mayor made that statement when she signed the city’s emergency declaration over the weekend.)
Separately, Gov. Ron DeSantis activated the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program on March 16 to support small businesses impacted by COVID-19. The bridge loan program, managed by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), will provide short-term, interest-free loans to small businesses that experience economic injury from COVID-19. The application period runs through May 8. For more information, visit www.floridadisasterloan.org or contact the Florida Small Business Development Center Network by phone at 866-737-7232, or email at [email protected]
Palm Coast issued the following recommendations regarding utility payments: