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Water bills are piling up

In one day last November, 38 liens were filed against delinquent JCSA customers.
By Cortney Langley
Published: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 8:22 AM EST

People are increasingly unable to keep up with their water and sewer bills, according to county records.

James City County deputy attorney Adam Kinsman said this week that he’s signing off on more than 10 James City Service Authority liens every week before they are filed in the courthouse.

“I don’t know the exact number,” he said. “But it used to be ‘Oh, what’s this?’ Now I do them every Friday.”

In 2006, JCSA filed only 14 liens, according to county records.

In contrast, on one November 2008 day, the authority filed almost four times that, with 38.

 The trend continues. This January, Kinsman signed off on 42. At this rate, hundreds of liens will be filed this year.

JCSA manager Larry Foster cited two causes.

First, people are trying to catch up after the billing debacle and delays of the past two years, which wasn’t their fault. When billing was passed to Hampton Roads Utility Billing Service, 30-45 day delays were common and late fees were waived.

Second, “It is a reflection, I think, of the economic times,” Foster said.

Delinquencies may also reflect higher water rates that took effect last July. The rates are tiered, and as customers use more water, the price per 1,000 gallons goes up.

One customer who recently received a cut-off notice told the Gazette that a May-June bill that did not rely on irrigation totaled about $250. During September-November, when irrigation was used to feed a replanted lawn, the bill exceeded $400.

Quarterly bills are followed 30 days later with a second notice. After two more weeks, JCSA puts a flier on the door noting that payment must be received in 72 hours or service will be cut off.

That works almost always, Foster said.

If it doesn’t, the authority sends out a letter warning about the possibility of JCSA filing a lien against the property. Many times the authority will hear from the customer within 10 days and work out a payment plan.

After 10 days JCSA can file a lien. Staff is also monitoring foreclosures and filing then.

And like foreclosures here, there is no socioeconomic pattern to the liens. They are as likely in upscale neighborhoods as in poorer neighborhoods, according to records.

In the city, Public Works & Utilities director Dan Clayton said that his staff has  noticed that more people are struggling to keep up. Historically, there have been “hardly any” cases, he said. The city is working with fewer than 20 people on payment schedules, but that’s up.

Most are seasonal workers who either lost their jobs or had their hours cut back or are worried about both. The division works with them individually and has not cut off water to anyone, Clayton said.

Newport News Waterworks is also reporting an increase in extensions, partial payments and other arrangements. The utility is not seeing an increase in cut-offs, according to a spokesperson.

Waterworks is structured differently and cannot file property liens. Instead, delinquencies can be recovered through reductions in state income tax refunds. That only happens once a year, spokeswoman Lee Ann Hartmann said, and so far there’s no increase.

JCSA also participates in the “Help to Others,” or H2O, plan, a regional partnership to assist people facing temporary hardship.

The program solicits voluntary community contributions and distributes the funds to local service providers (the Salvation Army here) that help people who have recently faced a disability, unemployment or a sudden death in the family. Foster expects the program will be used more in the future.

“We try to collect with a heart,” he said. At any stage, including after the lien has been filed, the customer can call and make payment arrangements. The lien is then released as quickly as possible.


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