CFPUA proposes automatic payment plans, disconnecting water for delinquent customers

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has detected high levels of 1,4-dioxane in the Cape Fear River (Port City Daily photo | Benjamin Schachtman)
The Cape Fear Public Utility will discuss the proposals at its Wednesday board meeting. (Port City Daily photo/File)

WILMINGTON — The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) will propose at this week’s board meeting a plan to automatically enroll residential customers who owe $450 or more in a 12-month, interest-free payment plan beginning in May.

The average residential customer owes $500, accounting for approximately 70% of residential delinquencies, according to the CFPUA.

If approved, customers in default on payment plans or who become delinquent on or after September 1 will be eligible for water service disconnections. The CFPUA described the proposal as a “last-minute resort collections measure intended to nudge customers to contact CFPUA to discuss a plan for bringing their accounts up to date.”

Water-service disconnections for those who are still delinquent would begin September 1. The CPFUA Authority Board will vote on the plan this Wednesday during its 9 a.m. meeting at the Wilmington Convention Center.

The water utility agency began suspending service disconnections for delinquent residential customers in February 2020. It has noted that “several regional utilities” have resumed disconnections for delinquent customers, and that the utility agency has continued to suspend disconnections past the end date of Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order prohibiting utility shutoffs during the pandemic.

The governor’s moratorium expired on July 29, when more than 1 million families across North Carolina were behind on their utilities payments, owing a collective amount greater than $225 million.

“A recent study showed that water systems serving 50 percent of North Carolina residents already have resumed or plan to resume disconnections,” according to the CFPUA.

The proposal would increase the delinquency dollar amount threshold from $100 to $450 for residential accounts more than 60 days past due.

During a CFPUA Sustainability Committee meeting in late February, board member Rob Zapple moved for the temporary measures, which was accepted unanimously.

Customers will be notified by mail and will be able to request shorter or longer payment plans if the proposal succeeds. Cutting off water supplies for delinquent residential customers, starting the beginning of September, would include disconnecting their irrigation meters, then reconnecting them once the account is up to date.

“If a customer continually defaults on a payment plan, they could become subject to the flow restrictor program,” according to minutes of the February meeting. “Staff recommends the flow restrictor program be delayed until September 2021, recognizing that the pandemic is expected to be moving in a downward direction by that time.”

Some health experts have predicted this fall could mark a “new normal” as businesses gradually reopen through the help of mass vaccinations, masks, routine testing, and potentially vaccine cards.

CFPUA officials earlier recommended designing flow restrictors that would restrict water inflow to 1.5 gallons per minute, up from an originally proposed rate of .5 gallons per minute. But according to spokesperson Vaughn Hagerty, CFPUA is no longer considering flow restrictors.

During the February meeting, the committee noted that cutoff policies in the past have “proven effective in obtaining payments on delinquent accounts.”

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