By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Water & Light reviews disconnection, fee policies

Whether the suspension continues into July depends partly on whether Gov. Kate Brown extends her emergency declaration, set to expire July 6.

If she does not extend the order, the water department staff “will be requesting a special meeting to discuss a transition plan for resumption” of its disconnect policy,” General Manager John Dietz told the Water & Light board of commissioners in a June 16 memo.

The board had voted to declare an emergency and suspend disconnections for late payments on March 17.

Dietz told the News-Register the utility has been working to make sure people who would otherwise have been disconnected don’t fall further behind.

“We took the initiative to call those people right at the beginning of this; we didn’t want to see them getting bills so large they would never be able to catch up,” Dietz said.

With the state’s record unemployment numbers, the utility also has been trying to help customers obtain payment aid, he said.

It has increased its own donations to its “Customers helping Customers” fund, which may be applied to McMinnville water, electric and sewer bills, Dietz said, and increased the amount each customer can receive, from $150 to $250.

Dietz reported slightly more people have been using the utility’s “customers helping customers” program to help make their payments, than last year.

Dietz said help with utility bills is also available through the federal CARES Act, and the utility has been helping people to connect with that, as well.

Dietz said the financial loss in disconnect fees are not causing hardship to the utility.

“The utility financially is in very good shape. We can sustain that for quite awhile,” he said.

Brown has called a special legislative session starting on Tuesday, primarily for issues related to police accountability in the wake of nationwide protests, but also to ask the Legislature to codify several actions related to the pandemic.

“Several pandemic-related policies that I have implemented via executive order, including the temporary eviction moratorium and protecting CARES Act payments from garnishment, should be codified in statute,” Brown said in a news release announcing the special session.

In May, Water & Light sought reimbursement for $21,759 in pandemic-related costs, from the state’s CARES Act fund.

However, the utility is doing well financially.

Forester Brent Keller, in his monthly report to the board, said that he expects the final value of timber sales from the company’s 600-acre watershed in the Coast Range to exceed $3.4 million. The utility bids out the logging work, which includes 126 acres this year, to local companies.

“All but a few sawmills are completely open and again buying logs. Log prices are generally lower than before the shutdown, but some mills are offering prices at pre-shutdown levels. Herbert Lumber Co. and Frank Lumber have remained completely throughout and plan to harvest all MW&L sales in 2020,” Keller wrote in his report.

Water & Light uses the money to fund its capital expenses, and to avoid borrowing money for expansions and new construction.

Dietz said that staff have begun returning to work part-time, while others continue to work from home. “The employees on this schedule are alternating days in the office with another employee to minimize the total number of people in the building on any given day,” he said.

The front lobby remains closed to the public, including vendors, Dietz said.

Its efforts to keep employees safe seem to be working; “So far, to date, we have not had any confirmed cases of COVID in our utility,” he said.

The utilty has divided both its water and line crews, and keeps them separate, he said, to try to ensure that if someone from one crew does get sick, there will still be a second crew available for work.

“We want to maintain the reliability of each crew to respond to emergencies as we need them to,” he said.

Dietz told commissioners it has so far waived $39,860 in credit card fees. More people have been using cards during the pandemic. There were 3,639 credit card payments in May of this year, compared to 2,220 in May of 2019, a 60 percent jump.

In May, the board heard a presentation from Customer Service Manager Jon Spence recommending moving to a no-fee model. The costs of processing credit card payments would increase, but so would staff efficiency, as new customer accounts continue to increase, he said.

The board discussed his proposal, but took no action.



Why would “the County Board of Commissioners” have anything to do with the operations of Mac W & L? I am assuming the reference should have been to the W & L Commission.

Nicole Montesano

Thanks for the catch, Sponge; it's been corrected now.

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