Aldermen narrowly approve softer, gentler utility deposit policy

Mayor Dana Outlaw declares the first and second motions dead based on lack of seconds. Alderman Sabrina Bengel promptly followed up with another motion that passed on a 4-1 vote.

 

Newly elected aldermen outvoted their more senior colleagues on Tuesday, initiating a more lenient utility rate deposit policy that takes effect July 1 but is not retroactive.

On Alderman Sabrina Bengel’s motion and Alderman Jameesha Harris’ second, the board voted 4-3 for the revised policy, which states:

  • Per fiscal year, deposits will not be assessed on the first payment arrangement.  Payment arrangements may be billed as installments.  No late penalties or fees will be assessed if the payment plan is adhered to as agreed upon.
  • Per fiscal year, deposits will not be assessed for the first check returned for insufficient funds.
  • New customers may pay deposits in installments with 50 percent due at the time service is established and the balance payable over four billing cycles.  Payment arrangements are not permitted until the deposit is paid.
  • New residential deposits shall not exceed $500.

Bengel, Harris, and Alderman Barbara Best drafted the policy revisions and were expected to vote for it. The only question was whether there would be a forth vote necessary to pass it.

But Best had new concerns about deposit refunds. At present, security deposits are returned after 18 months of good payments. Even with the revised policy, one payment arrangement would restart the 18 month period before the deposit is refunded to the customer.

Best argued that one payment arrangement should not prevent a customer from receiving a refund after one 18-month period.

Harris went the entire opposite direction. She said by reducing the security deposit to $500, it puts the city at further financial risk. She argued that security deposits should be returned only when a customer leaves the city.

Alderman Bobby Aster, a potential swing vote, questioned whether that would be fair, saying the city would then be holding onto deposits for years or decades.

Harris made the initial motion, which did not get a second, mainly because of wording issues.

Bengel made a second motion that would have allowed customers to have their security deposit refunded after 18 months even if during that time they had made one payment arrangement, provided they completed the payment arrangement during that 18 months.

Harris said she would not support that motion, saying the city should not refund security deposits except when a customer leaves the city.

Perhaps seeing an opportunity to stall the revision of a policy that he implemented during his first term as mayor, Mayor Dana Outlaw declared the two motions dead for lack of being seconded.

He suggested that the board wait before changing the policy. The city has not fully rolled out its advanced utility metering system or a program that allows customers to prepay their bills, he said. The city also has a new utilities director who has not had a chance to weigh in on the issue.

Alderman Jeffrey Odham agreed, saying that changing the policy would be jumping the gun.

Alderman Johnnie Ray Kinsey, who at first said he liked the Bengel/Harris/Best plan, agreed with Outlaw and Odham.

Undeterred, with Best’s permission, Bengel made another motion, this one free of any mention of deposit refunds, guaranteeing at least the three votes from the committee that drafted the policy revisions. That motion passed, 4-1, with Astor casting the deciding vote.

The financial impact on the city is that it puts up to $72,000 at risk if customers default.

June 13th, 2018 by
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