The Finance Department believes the Sitka General Code is too punishing towards Sitkans with overdue bills. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

During last night’s (02-09-16) meeting, the Sitka Assembly was notified of a snowballing issue in the city finance department: utility bills. Specifically, what happens when a household doesn’t pay its bill within a three week grace period.

Downloadable audio.

Sitka’s General Code states that if a utility bill goes unpaid twenty three days past due, power to that household is shut off. That’s the the rule. But as more Sitkans struggle to make ends meet, enforcing that rule is proving both costly and morally difficult for the Finance Department.

Speaking before the Assembly, City Finance Director Jay Sweeney said, “I have seen some of the most terrible, traumatic cases. A good example.  I have somebody who is on oxygen who can’t pay their bill.”

With cases like this increasing, the Finance Department has departed from code over the years, keeping power on in some cases and making it easier for Sitkans to regain power once it’s been disconnected. With this softening of the rules, Sweeney said his staff have been making judgement calls on whether a customer can really pay the bill or not. This is a problem for two reasons: 1) It’s against Sitka General Code and 2) It puts city staff in the shoes of social service agents, which they’re not qualified to be.

Take the case of the customer on oxygen. Sweeney said, “I’m faced with the moral dilemma with myself as finance director: Do I obey the Sitka General Code and disconnect electricity when somebody’s health is at stake? I make that judgement call and say no. But those are the type of things that are placed on myself and my staff with the way the code is currently written.”

Mayor Mim McConnell asked why this issue was only being brought to light now. Sweeney explained that due to a turnover in personnel, the department has begun to reckon internal discrepancies between billing code and billing practice. Power disconnections have increased as a result.

In an effort to bring the Finance Department back into compliance, Sweeney approached the Assembly for guidance. “If there is a fundamental social welfare right of every citizen to have access to electric power, regardless of the ability to pay or to pay all that is due, is that the political will of the Assembly? If so, that’s a different paradigm and a different decision than what is currently contained in the Sitka General Code.”

Here’s what the Sitka General Code says now: if your utility payment is fifteen days late, the city will send you a warning letter.  If another week passes without payment, the Electric Department places a pink hanger on the household’s door knob. The Finance Department estimates that 10,000 letters and 4,000 door hangers are given out every year. If no payment is made, power is disconnected the next day, so long as it’s not a weekend and temperatures are above freezing.

City administrator Mark Gorman said, “At any given time there are about five homes in Sitka that have not reconnected once they have been disconnected. So it’s a very small but concerning group of citizens that aren’t able to pay.” About 800 households are shut off each year.

Now, if a customer can’t pay the bill in full, Sitka General Code says he or she can set up a payment plan. But given these hard economic times, Sweeney said that signing a payment plan contract can be a stretch for some Sitkans.

Speaking from the public, Georgiana Smith saw this first hand. Her friend brought a delinquent bill to city hall, but couldn’t pay it in full.

They told her, ‘We can’t take your money, you have to go upstairs to sign a contract.’ There were 10 people in front of her [in line]. I saw one lady coming out of there, bursting in tears. She had a baby with her, wondering ‘How am I going to buy food?’ I felt so bad. I really did. You know, people are struggling. And [Sweeney’s] talking about yes, you have to sign the contract, but some people can’t come up with $600 they have to pay to keep their electric going for next month.

Karen Attix, another citizen, asked if the rise in power disconnections correlates to the increase in electric rates, to meet bond payments on Sitka’s Blue Lake Dam. Sweeney said yes. As of mid-January, Sitka’s past due utility debt was over $400,000.

This problem is clearly a big one, but there are some solutions. Sweeney presented four recommendations for updating Sitka General Code and/or build a safety net for struggling Sitkans. One of his ideas envisions a voluntary donation program, where Sitkans could pay a little extra on their utility bill to help other Sitkans in need. The money would go to a social service agency, such as the Salvation Army.

Gorman felt this idea had potential, particularly if the Assembly could put this year’s non-profit emergency funding – about $7,500 – towards the Salvation Army’s utility assistance program, which already exists. “They’re much better equipped to provide that safety network to our citizens. It’s a really tough task on the staff to do what Jay and his folks have been doing,” Gorman said. “We have a responsibility to support that safety net, but I don’t think we’re best positioned to provide that service directly.”

In the end, the Assembly took no official action on the matter. Sweeney said he didn’t anticipate a solution overnight, but wanted to gauge how the Assembly felt about this issue.

Assembly member Tristan Guevin echoed Sweeney’s earlier question, saying that: Yes, the city should strive to keep the lights on, regardless of one’s ability to pay. He asked, “If we’re not willing to subsidize those people on the margins for electricity or basic necessities, why are we even here?”

The Assembly decided to form a work group to craft some suggestions for the Finance Department. Assembly members Bob Potrzuski and Tristan Guevin volunteered to take part.

In an earlier version of this story, the non-profit emergency fund was listed as having $75,000. That number has been corrected to $7,500. KCAW regrets this error.