A standing-room-only crowd consisting of many upset citizens filled the Adel City Council meeting room during a Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 24, 2022, work session on much delayed utility bills.
Adel Mayor Buddy Duke started off by emphasizing that the work session was for interaction between the City Council and city staff on plans for mailing out the bills, and getting customer payments back. The session was not a public hearing for input from the audience. Still, conversations between residents in the audience and their vocal reactions to what was being presented grew so loud that it at times was difficult to hear what the city officials were discussing. At a couple of points, the Mayor had to bang his gavel and ask the audience members to bring down the volume of discontent.
The Mayor urged the attendees to call their Council Members or City Hall after the meeting so their concerns could be addressed on a person-by-person basis.
The City later announced that Mayor Duke would be available in the City Hall council chambers from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Aug. 29, through Friday, Sept. 2, to meet with any customer, individually, about utility billing concerns.
“I know that I’ve been inundated with questions and barraged with questions, just like the rest of the Council and the staff,” Mayor Duke said. “But we’re here together today to work up a resolution, to come to the end of what we are really seeing as one of the biggest challenges we have had in the City of Adel.”
The Mayor said the city staff has been working diligently on the issue, with one employee working on the matter day in and day out for close to eight months. He also said Dr. Treva Gear and the Concerned Citizens of Cook County group participated in the planning for the utility bills, “to try to come up with an equitable answer, to address citizens on a pay scale or pay schedule that is accommodating to each.” The Concerned Citizens have provided five or six bullet points that are very meaningful to city officials, the Mayor said.
EDITOR’S NOTE– After the Aug. 24 work session, the Concerned Citizens of Cook County group said they did not participate in the planning for utility bills, and city officials did not consider recommendations made by the group to city staff before the plan for the bills was developed. We will have more information about this issue in a forthcoming article.
City Attorney Tim Tanner then reiterated the State of Georgia’s gratuity law, as provided in Article III, Section 6, Paragraph 6A, of the Georgia Constitution. “It simply means that governments cannot forgive lawful debts,” Tanner said. “They cannot give a gift, a donation, a gratuity, or forgive any debt or obligation from the public. Obviously, that is a big area of the law. There are exceptions to that. But that is the general prohibition against any government forgiving debt that is owed to the public.”
Mayor Duke then asked the city staff to address expectations for bill paying, cutoff and penalty discussion, and a calendar of events.
City Manager John Flythe noted:
• Back utility bills will soon start being mailed out as often as every seven to 10 days until the City is caught up to the present billing month.
• No customer will be required to pay more than one monthly bill during a 30-day period.
• No penalty will be assessed on those payments. Penalties will only be assessed if a customer is disconnected for non-payment. Once the City has the back billing caught up, the City will offer a payment plan for any remaining unpaid balances.
• Payment of the customer’s oldest bill will always be required ahead of the most recent ones. Non-payment of utility bills under this plan will result in an interruption of utilities. Power will be cut off if a customer does not pay at least one of the back utility bills each and every 30 days. If a customer is disconnected, penalty and reconnection fees will apply at that point.
Flythe recommended that the City Council formally vote on the plan at their next regular meeting (Tuesday, Sept. 6).
“We think that we will be caught up on our billing in March 2023,” Flythe said. At that point, if some customers have not paid for their arrears bills, the city staff will recommend to Council that there should be a payback period. But that payment plan hasn’t been worked out yet.
For more information about the utility billing plan, please see a letter from the City of Adel in this week’s issue.
In an effort to provide information as to when a bill for an account may have been issued, the City will update their website as bills are prepared and mailed. A customer can visit the website at www.cityofadel.us to review that schedule. The website also contains information concerning agencies that provide utility payment assistance. Flythe said city officials got the idea from Dr. Gear to get other agencies involved to help the customers in need of assistance. City staff have called the Georgia Municipal Association and other agencies across the state to help in this effort.
Under the previous billing plan, a customer would face a penalty if he had not paid his bill in 10 days, and cutoff for failure to pay would be after 20 days.
Responding to a question from Councilwoman Celestine Hayes, Flythe said American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) COVID relief funds possibly could be used to offset some of the payments owed, but the city attorney needed to review the matter and advise the Mayor and Council if the City can legally do that. City officials would need to develop a mechanism for citizen qualifications to get help from the COVID relief funds, too. Still, Flythe noted that the City has about $2 million in ARPA funds, and considering the total of Electric Department billing, “we would have a $14 million shortfall” if the City tried to cover all residential bills using the ARPA funds. “The attorney has to tell us if we can and the criteria for it, and that is for another discussion here,” Flythe said. The answer on legality could be available at the next meeting.
Councilwoman Hayes also asked about the possibility of reducing power rates to help citizens. Flythe said the cost of power production is increasing, thus customer rates in general are going up for utility providers which are on the same generation system. He recommended against taking action on discounted rates at this time until the City has resolved the utility billing issues.
Council Member Walter Cowart recommended sending out a letter to customers and explaining the utility bills plan. Flythe said the letter could be sent out in bills, posted on the City of Adel website, and placed in the newspaper.
Several customers have already accumulated credit by paying some towards their bills each month, Flythe noted.
Following the work session, some citizens approached the Mayor and Council to voice their concerns about the utility bills. A couple of police officers were at standby in the Council meeting room to ensure order.
During a called meeting following the work session, the City Council voted unanimously to approve a real estate swap with Williams Investment Co. on Texas Road. The City will give up right-of-way of approximately 0.305 acres to relocate a new Texas Road consisting of approximately 0.686 acres. The property swap is needed for construction of a new Circle K convenience store.
The land swap is similar to what the City plans to do with Williams Investment Co. on Alabama Road. The City plans to swap 3.12 acres, portions of the existing Alabama Road right-of-way, to relocate a new Alabama Road consisting of 8.69 acres. The real estate exchange is subject to approval by the Adel City Council, too.