Editor's note: More information was added to this story after it was originally published. See below for clarification.
Rock Hill residents having trouble paying electric bills this winter will need to follow stricter guidelines to qualify for a payment plan and avoid being disconnected.
City officials say stricter guidelines shouldn’t adversely affect customers who need more time to pay bills, but one local charitable group is concerned.
With stricter enforcement some residents may not meet the city’s criteria for payment plans and local charities may not have enough money to pay a utility bill in full, said Iris Hubbard, director of Renew Our Community in Rock Hill.
The change may affect the elderly or those on fixed-incomes the greatest, she said.
The city recently began stricter enforcement of its payment plan policy which allows customers up to three months to pay a bill under some circumstances. Three payment arrangements per customer are allowed per year.
Customers wanting to arrange a payment plan must come to Rock Hill’s City Hall and meet with an accounts management employee. Previously customers could set up payment plans over the phone. The change was made to help cut down on customer service call wait times for all customers, city officials said last week.
Arranging a payment plan typically takes more time than other calls for city services, such as making a credit card payment, or reporting a pothole, said Anne Harty, the city’s chief financial officer. The city also recently hired an outside call center service to handle some customer needs and reduce phone wait times.
Customers will now need to show documentation to qualify for a payment plan. Examples include filing for unemployment benefits if the customer lost their job, a police report if the customer has been the victim of a crime, or hospital or doctor bills in the event of a major illness.
Utility bill payment plans are to help customers in “extraordinary circumstances” and “difficult financial situations,” according to the city’s policy. Customers are expected to pay one-third of their bill upfront and make installment payments on the remaining balance over time, for up to three months.
The policy doesn’t list specific circumstances, but states that city employees will use their best judgment in granting payment arrangements.
Until recently most city utility customers were not required to document financial hardship.
While the policy states payment plans are designed only for when “significant life events” affect a person’s ability to pay their bill, the city has been flexible with its customers during a down economic time when unemployment rates were high, Harty said.
Now that the recession is over, city officials say it makes sense to be more strict in approving payment arrangements.
Hubbard of ROC is concerned that the changes could affect some of the clients she tries to help.
“The people who come to us are in crisis –– it’s not usually the same people,” Hubbard said. Renew Our Community, or ROC, is one of a several local charitable organizations that offers utility bill assistance.
As many as 50 people facing disconnected utilities visit ROC for help every week, she said. City officials said in an average week, 150 customers lose service for not paying their bill.
Hubbard said the number of people needing utility assistance increased in the coldest and hottest months. Making payment arrangements is often the difference between keeping the lights and heat on or being disconnected, she said.
With limited resources, ROC and other charitable groups can usually afford to help a person make a down payment, or pay one-third of their bill, Hubbard said.
Often people can’t afford their bill because they used more electricity in hot or cold months to stay warm or keep cool –– not because they lost a job or were hospitalized. Many people only need seasonal help from places such as ROC, she said, and those people have the ability to pay their own bills throughout most of the year.
Hubbard said she is worried the recent changes could exclude customers who need payment plans, but who haven’t experienced an “extraordinary circumstance.” Rock Hill employees said they work closely with charitable organizations to avoid disconnecting utilities.
Accounts management employees still have discretion in approving payment arrangements and consideration would be given to customers with unusually high summer or winter bills, city officials said.
Harty said the recent changes shouldn’t affect customers drastically, “because we’ve always strengthened the procedures in the fall and spring when bills are typically low.”
So far this year more than 7,000 payment plans have been approved –– including some people who have used payment plans up to three times this year. More than half of those customers made their payments on time. About 40 percent did not and their services likely were disconnected, according to city officials.
Currently less than 1 percent of the city’s nearly 35,000 customers are on active payment plans, records show. The city’s finance department reports that it collects nearly all of the money owed by utility customers –– nearly a 99 percent collection rate even with payment plan options and delinquent customer accounts.
Other York Co. utilities
The city of Rock Hill serves about one-third of York County’s population with water, electric, and sewer services. Other county residents use York Electric Cooperative or Duke Energy for electric service.
The number of customers using payment arrangements at York Electric is similar to Rock Hill’s, co-op officials said.
Co-op customers can request up to two payment arrangements every six months. To qualify, customers must pay half of their current bill upfront and the rest on the next billing cycle, according to co-op officials. Request can be made by phone.
Marc Howie, vice president of community development for York Electric, said the co-op tries hard to avoid disconnecting customers’ electric service.
On average, York Electric has about 30 disconnects a week out of its nearly 47,000 customers.
At both the co-op and the city, if a customer utility service is already disconnected, they must pay the outstanding balance in full to restore services. Payment plans are generally not given to disconnected customers with outstanding balances.
The following clarification regarding this story was published in the Dec. 24 Herald:
An article in the Dec. 14 Herald regarding the city of Rock Hill’s utility billing policies needs clarification that city officials will give customers payment plan options for usually high electric bills during extreme weather months. Other reasons the city considers in granting payment arrangements are: a customer who has lost their job, has had a medical crisis, or has been the victim of a crime, among others. The article reported that some procedures for getting a payment plan changed this year. Although changes were made recently, the city has in years past strengthened its payment plan procedures during mild weather months. This is done, city officials say, to ensure customers are caught up on their bills before severe cold or extreme heat lead to higher bills during extreme weather months.