If you don’t really use a utility service do you still have to pay for it?
The answer is yes. But the trickier question is if you aren’t using a service and the City isn’t billing you for it, can you be charged back payments for payments you were never billed?
The answer may also be yes according to recent comments at an Exeter City Council meeting.
At its Oct. 22 meeting, City Administrator Randy Groom asked the Council what they would like to see happen on the rare occasions there is a glitch in the City’s billing software which does not bill residents for services being provided.
“This is for those rare instances where the computer does not charge someone for a service they have,” Groom said. “Logically, there is no reason for it to ever happen but these glitches do occasionally occur. We need to set a policy on how we collect or bill for those missing payments.”
Groom said in one recent example, there was an abandoned building that was still hooked up to City utilities. He said a glitch in the computer did not charge for refuse services but did charge for sewer and water.
“They weren’t really putting anything in the garbage so they didn’t think they had to pay for the service unless they were using it,” Groom said.
Councilman Dale Sally Jr. asked “How can we justify going back any amount of time?”
Groom said it is common practice for most utilities to require back payments of services provided but not billed. He said the California Public Utilities Commission – which oversees rate increases and policies regarding the public for Southern California Edison, PG&E and The Gas Co. – allowed utility companies to charge for unbilled services going back as far as three years.
“By law, do we have to collect those fees?” Councilman Ted Macualay asked.
City Attorney Steve Kabot said utilities are enterprise funds, which means rates are based on what it costs the City to provide the service. Kabot argued it would be unfair to the other residents if the City did not charge them for services provided, even if the person never used or remembered using the service.
“You can’t raise the rates on just the other customers to recover the cost from the other customers,” he said.
Mayor Robyn Stearns suggested if someone was new to Exeter, they would have no reason to question the overall cost of the utility bill or know if it was too low or too high on average.
“If they aren’t really using the service they might not know they have to pay for it,” she said.
Kabot said every resident should know or should have known that they receive utilities whether or not they use the service. Groom reitereated, saying Exeter’s utility bill is all inclusive, meaning if your home has water, you automatically have sewer and refuse services as well, regardless of if you want them.
“The service is being provided, whether or not you are not using it or claim not to be using it,” Groom said.
Mayor Pro-Tem Jack Allwardt suggested allowing City Hall to collect unbilled services going back six months. Macualay suggested allowing the residents to repay those months over the course of another six months to avoid a large, lump sum payment. The item was for discussion only and no action was taken. Groom said he would bring back a resolution based on their recommendations sometime in November.
In Other Council News:
The City of Exeter informally agreed to support a project for a walking/bike path connecting Visalia, Farmersville and Exeter. Known as the “K Road to Exeter Bike Path,” the project was approved by the Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG) as part of an expenditure plan amendment to Measure R on July 22.
The $16 million regional project would extend a bike path along K Road in Visalia through Farmersville to Exeter. Visalia is in the process of completing the bike path throughout the City ending at Lovers Lane. Groom said at least one of the options shows the path extending along the railroad tracks through Farmersville ending near Palm and F streets in Exeter where it could connect with the City’s existing bike paths.
“I think it’s a great idea but the railroad company will balk at the idea of having a path through there,” Councilman Ted Macaulay said. “They would probably have to stop it at Belmont to keep away from their train yards on F Street.”
Groom said TCAG has agreed to pay $30,000 for Quad Knopf to “study the engineering feasibility and preliminary design opportunities associated with construction of a Class 1 Path.” Bike paths fall into three classes, Class 1 being the safest because it is separated from vehicular traffic (such as the bike path along Walnut Avenue in Visalia) and Class 3 being signs designated the area is part of an otherwise unmarked bike path.