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One call from Danville mayor leads to two-week postponement of utility disconnections

One call from Danville mayor leads to two-week postponement of utility disconnections


For Danville resident LeQuanta Jones, the $1,126 in federal CARES Act utilities assistance she applied for last month was a godsend. 

The divorced, single mother of seven was two months behind in her utility bills and had just been hired for a job at Outback Steakhouse in late July after being unemployed for about seven months. 

She had been unable to pay her June and July utility bills — her monthly utility bills average about $400 to $500. 

"It was a big help," Jones, 40, said of the financial assistance. "When I did find a job, it was hard to catch up."  

Danville was all set Monday to begin utilities disconnections for those delinquent in their bills when the city manager got a call from the mayor. 

Mayor Alonzo Jones had received calls from organizations trying to assist Danville Utilities customers scrambling to collect enough money to pay their overdue bills. So he called City Manager Ken Larking to see what he could do. 

Larking consulted with city staff to see if there could be an extension. Before the day was over — the day before the city was to begin disconnections on Tuesday — officials announced there would be a two-week postponement of utility disconnections until Sept. 14.   

"We wanted to make sure customers had enough time to get their delinquent balances in order," Larking told Danville City Council during its meeting Tuesday night. 

Larking's decision to postpone the disconnections came within an hour of Alonzo Jones' call. 

The extension was to give customers — especially those who had applied for CARES Act assistance to pay utility bills in late August as the previous Sept. 1 disconnection date neared — a couple of extra weeks to complete paperwork and find out if they could get financial help. 

"That gives them enough time for their paperwork to be approved," Alonzo Jones said. 

Deborah Fitzgerald, family services manager with the Danville Department of Social Services, said they have seen a surge in applications for CARES Act assistance for utility payments — especially the week that ended Aug. 21 as Sept. 1 approached. 

"That was the busiest week that we had seen up until now," Fitzgerald said. 

Since late June, social services had approved around 400 applications for CARES Act utilities assistance. The department had given preliminary approval for 50 applications by the end of Tuesday, and another 15 on Thursday. 

The department has denied a few applications from people who weren't affected by the pandemic.

"Some of the people we've helped have never had to ask for assistance before," Fitzgerald said. "They've always been able to make ends meet without any issues."

Before the week beginning Aug. 31, there were about 2,200 residential customers at risk of disconnection, said Danville Finance Director Michael Adkins. As of Wednesday, about 1,700 at risk, he said. 

The amount of delinquent balances on residential accounts has fallen from about $1.26 million to about $971,000, Adkins said. 

"We still have about $320,000 of CARES Act funds earmarked for utility assistance," he said. 

Other than the CARES Act funding available for those affected by the pandemic, the city also offers assistance for customers who have trouble paying their bills due to financial difficulties not related to the ongoing pandemic. 

There is a Neighbors Helping Neighbors fund, which customers can contribute via their utility bills. The city also offers an equal pay plan that allows participants to pay equal monthly amounts without facing costlier bills during peak-use months when energy consumption is much higher.

The city's delinquent account timeline collection works like this: if a customer's bill is due June 15, a late payment fee of 1.5% is added to their account if the bill is still not paid on June 16. 

On June 20, the first late payment notice is mailed to the customer. Ten days later on June 30, that customer will receive the next monthly utility bills with the past due balance from the previous bill.

On July 15, a second late payment notice is mailed with instructions to pay immediately to avoid a $50 delinquent account fee and disconnection. 

Six days later on July 21, the $50 fee is applied to the account and the first bill is 35 days past due. Electric service is disconnected the next day. 

Other utilities — gas and water — are disconnected eight days later on July 30.   

On Aug. 29, the customer is moved out of the account, their deposit is applied to their balance and the final bill is mailed to the customer. 

The account is turned over to a collection agency on Nov. 12, if the bill is still not paid.   

LeQuanta Jones feels like she will be in better financial shape and in good standing with her bills now that she has steady employment. 

"I'm pretty much settled," she said. "Now I know I got some steady income coming in, I should be able to handle everything."

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