Tuesday, June 6, 2023

CFPUA responds to social media complaint over the use of property liens for non-payment

Members of the CFPUA board clarified that liens are not used for water customers, just for 'sewer only' customers since shutting off sewer service is not as simple as cutting off water.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority does use liens for non-paying customers, but according to CFPUA the motion is rare, and only used when other options have been exhausted. (Port City Daily photo | File)
The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority does use liens for non-paying customers, but according to CFPUA the motion is rare, and only used when other options have been exhausted. (Port City Daily photo | File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A former candidate for Wilmington City Council took to Facebook this week to protest CFPUA’s use of liens on the property of customers who failed to make payments. Now, CFPUA’s executive director and a board member are responding.

Philip White, who ran for Wilmington City Council in 2017, attended Wednesday’s CFPUA meeting and took to Facebook the following day to protest one thing in particular. During the meeting, while discussing CFPUA’s collection rate, Board Member and New Hanover County Commissioner Skip Watkins asked if the authority could place a lien on the property of customers who were behind on payments.

Watkins was informed it was only legal for “sewer-only” customers.

Still, White, who called for a “restructuring” of CFPUA during the campaign, took objection to the idea.

“My only real issue with the meeting, besides just normal discontent with the CFPUA came from Commissioner Skip Watkins,” White wrote. “He asked if they could place liens on these people’s homes. This statement was very frustrating to me, and is, in my opinion, proof positive of why Government should never be run like a business … These are secondary expenses and somewhat luxury items. But, clean water, should be a basic Human Right.”

White continued, “CFPUA already has enough ridiculous fees, is a Monopoly, and charges far too much for contaminated water. To place a lien against someone’s home, because they cannot afford something as basic as running water, is in my opinion, nothing short of an act of Villany. CFPUA has a surplus of $6,400,000.00 from just 2018. They are not hurting for money.”

According to CFPUA Executive Director Jim Flechtner, the liens are used “only as a last resort after exhausting other collection options.”

CFPUA has about 145 active liens, according to Flechtner, 45 of which have been paid. The liens are only used for sewer-only customers, like those using well water but relying on CFPUA sewage service; for water customers, non-payment eventually leads to having a customer’s water shut-off.

Watkins said CFPUA had multiple programs designed to assist customers in bad financial situations.

“We’ve got many, many programs to help people before it gets to shutting the water off or putting a lien on (a customer’s property),” Watkins said. “We’ve even taken action at the Board level if it came to that. We aren’t going to cut off Grandma’s water.”

Still, in those cases where CFPUA does issue a lien, Watkins said the authority has an obligation to take some action, since it cannot simply shut off the sewer service.

State law doesn’t allow CFPUA to require a water connection, but as a public health issue the authority is allowed to require sewer connection. Public health and safety is also a concern when it comes to shutting off sewer service. In addition to being more difficult that shutting off water, it also presents the risk of interfering with the flow of sewerage from neighboring properties.

Because sewers can’t be shut off, Watkins said CFPUA ends up continuing to provide the service without payment.

“If someone doesn’t pay their bill, then everyone else’s bill is going to go up,” Watkins said.

Watkins also expressed concern that people might be upset because they don’t fully understand what a lien is.

“We’re not taking your house, that’s not what that means,” Watkins said. “It just means if you sell your house the proceeds from the sale will cover the unpaid fees.”

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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