Businesses face water shutoff
BRATTLEBORO — The town will resume disconnecting water and sewer services to commercial and industrial customers with overdue bills.
"Primarily these are the larger customers in the system and they use a lot of water in whatever manufacturing process or other commercial process they're engaged in," Town Manager Elwell said during a special Select Board meeting held remotely Tuesday.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, the town suspended shutting of water services out of concern for customers' ability to pay and health reasons. Financial hardship was anticipated and frequent hand washing was advised by public health officials.
As of July 31, 10 commercial or industrial customers owed the town about $174,000, compared to 85 residential customers who owed about $69,000, according to a town memo. Elwell said resuming the shutoff process is "fair and proper, and actually necessary."
The Select Board voted unanimously to support the effort. The customers will receive advance warning and have the opportunity to enter into payment plans, Elwell told the board.
"These are not businesses that have had to close during COVID-19 or severely cut back their operation," he said. "They are businesses that are continuing to consume significant amounts of water and are prioritizing paying other bills over paying the bills to the town."
Elwell described the group of residential customers who have not paid on time as being "a little bit larger" than pre-pandemic times.
With no authority under state law for the board to waive interest and penalty fees accruing on nonpayment, he said town staff has concerns that households already under financial duress might fall behind so much that it will be very difficult for them to recover. Letters are anticipated to go out to residential customers with overdue bills, urging them to see the treasurer about setting up a payment plan.
Board Brandie Starr said she's glad the town isn't looking at shutting off water for residential customers yet.
"Because in my opinion," she said, "I'm not sure, from a public health perspective or a financial perspective, much has changed since March."
Southeastern Vermont Community Action can point those who are struggling financially to resources, said board member Daniel Quipp. He works for the organization.
Board Chairman Tim Wessel said commercial and industrial customers account for 72 percent of what is owed, "and that's a big chunk of money and it's just a few customers. And as long as this doesn't affect fire safety and things like that, I think its absolutely justified."
For the future, Wessel suggested looking into how many of the residential customers with overdue bills are landlords with multi-unit buildings.
Tuesday's special meeting was warned after a power outage cut a meeting short last week. Board members worried whether the public would have access issues since the meeting was held with teleconferencing software.
On Tuesday, the board also approved warning Annual Representative Town Meeting for Sept. 12 and if need be Sept. 13. The event was postponed in March due to the pandemic and will be held via Zoom.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.
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