The City of Lawton will develop two new programs to help residents cover their delinquent utility bills.
City Council members agreed to the action Thursday as they continue to grapple with a preliminary budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. While that preliminary document — which city officials call a place holder budget that will be adjusted numerous times in the coming fiscal year — already has about $10 million less in expenditures than the existing year, council members and city administrators say they fear cuts aren’t enough as preliminary revenue data begins to come in.
For example, city officials already know there are about 8,000 delinquent utility accounts which will cost the City of Lawton at least $1 million in lost revenue.
“It’s something we need to look at,” City Manager Michael Cleghorn said.
Mayor Pro Tem/Ward 4 Councilman Jay Burk said the city doesn’t really have a choice but to pursue those delinquent accounts, which is why Ward 8 Councilman Randy Warren got permission to direct city staff to create two new programs: a dedicated fund that will help utility customers pay their late fees, and a repayment system for delinquent bills.
Warren said he wanted council permission for city staff to craft the two new programs, explaining there was no need for staff to do the work if the council didn’t plan to vote for the concept. He said it was important that the city collect its delinquent utility payments, saying “the city needs that money, our budget needs that money.”
The first program would create a dedicated fund that would hold contributions from individuals, businesses and entities, with those funds dedicated to paying late fees incurred by those who could not pay their utility bills during the COVID-19 Civil Emergency Proclamation (which began March 16 and now is calculated to last through May 31).
“There are some individuals, some companies that would be interested in providing funds for that,” Warren said.
Earlier, the council also indicated support for a plan by Mayor Stan Booker and Burk to waive two months of late fees for residents unable to pay their utility bills because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And, the city also is working on the details of a plan that would allow qualified lower-income residents to apply to a program funded by Community Development Block Grants to pay late fees.
Deputy City Manager Bart Hadley asked that waiver of late fees be made from “this time forward,” noting it would be difficult and labor intensive for city staff to analyze all past utility accounts to determine qualified residents.
Warren said his proposal for a payment plan for delinquent accounts helps address a simple legal issue: the City of Lawton cannot legally “forgive” delinquent accounts.
“Our bond counsel won’t let us. The people who buy our bonds won’t appreciate it,” he said.
Warren’s proposal would create a 12-month repayment plan for utility account holders who hold past due utility bills that occurred during the COVID-19 executive proclamation. That past-due amount would be worked into a 12-month payment plan, allowing residents to keep current on monthly utility bills while making smaller payments to eliminate their past-due debt.
Cleghorn said private utility companies have similar programs for their delinquent customers.
“If that agreement is broken, then they are cut off,” he said.
The proposals will be brought back to the full council for action when they are designed.