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Local governments consider how to deal with past-due water payments

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Suez employee Ben Lankheet monitors the City of Alpena’s water system while at work Thursday. Yesterday, the state’s moratorium forbidding water shutoffs due to non-payment expired and utility customers will need to pay what they owe. It is possible the state could extend the order, but it has yet to do so.

ALPENA — Residents may have to pay unpaid water bills soon because of the State of Michigan’s moratorium on water shutoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The order by the state, that forbade the shutoff of water during the pandemic, expired Thursday, and unless new action is taken in Lansing, water providers can send out notices of shutoff.

How each municipality with water and sewer systems addresses the past-due bills will differ from one another.

The City of Alpena received money from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to make up for revenue lost because of non-payment. Therefore, the city couldn’t shut off water until 90 days after it receives the payment for each customer.

Interim-City Manager Rich Sullenger said the payment from the state was received in November, so the 90 days have passed and the city could begin to send out shutoff notices if it chooses to.

As of now, Sullenger said, nothing official is decided, but he suspects if the Alpena City Council concurs with his reasoning, non-payment notices could go out during the next quarterly billing cycle.

“We haven’t really talked about it yet, but any action will need council approval,” he said.

Suez Utility Manager Mike Glowinski said there are “quite a few” accounts that are past-due, but he didn’t have the updated account and amount totals on hand.

Suez is hired by the city to manage water and sewer operations.

In Rogers City, there are about 40 customers in arrears and eligible to have their water disconnected, if the state doesn’t act.

Mayor Scott McLennan said the city will work with people, within reason, to help them catch up on what they owe, but added continued non-payment can’t continue. He said most customers have paid their bill, and the number of delinquent accounts is lower than what he anticipated.

“Overall, everyone has been very responsible and we’re very proud of our residents for what they have done, especially as far into the pandemic as we are. However, we’re not going to allow this to go on forever,” McLennan said. “The water is subsidized by fellow taxpayers, and there comes a time when people need to pay their bills.”

The City of Rogers City bills its customers monthly and those who are two months, or more, behind, can expect notices if payments or other arrangements aren’t made.

In Harrisville, there aren’t expected to be any shutoff notices issued to any of the approximately 330 customers, Mayor Jeff Gehring said. He said before the pandemic the city worked with customers who fell behind on payments, and will continue to do so.

Gehring said there aren’t a lot of large outstanding bills, so making sure people have the water services they need, especially during the pandemic, trumps collecting the small amount of money that’s owed.

“In the time I have been mayor, I can’t remember one time we had to shut off someone’s water, and I don’t expect we will have to now,” Gehring said. “It’s just never really been an issue here. We will work with the people and do what we can to help them, and normally they cooperate.”

The Michigan Legislature is on a two-week break, so extending the moratorium would have to be done when the lawmakers return.

Attempts were made to contact the governor’s office for comment, but went unanswered.

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