LA MESA – Beatrice Jimenez was surprised when she opened her water bill in June and found it to be higher than normal.
A little higher, in fact: His bill had gone from a previous average of around $ 25 to $ 2,232.
A miscellaneous adjustment of over $ 2,200 had been added to her account which, she soon learned, was for overdue sewer charges; and unless she found the money or made payment arrangements, her water service would be cut off.
Jimenez lives in La Mesa, a colony in southern New Mexico with a population of less than 800. It receives water service from the Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority, a government entity formed in 2006 serving over a dozen colonias over 100 square miles south of Las Cruces, with over 5,000 connections.
This summer, the utility also assumed responsibility for billing the Doña Ana County sanitation services, inheriting 1,700 new accounts in addition to 700 from its own sewer customers and about 50 from the District of Dona. Anthony’s water and sanitation facility, PWWA officials said.
A number of those legacy sewer accounts were overdue, but the utility said the gross totals were not known. PWWA chief executive Martin Lopez said most overdue accounts were “a few months or less” overdue, but some were further down the line.
Lopez said most of the overdue sewer accounts had made payment arrangements, while a few had their own wells or inactive water service.
Still, 180 residents of the colonia saw their water services cut off at least briefly in September, including customers overdue on their old sewer bills who missed payment schedules, Lopez said. Another 32 were on the disconnection list but could benefit from exemptions.
“The invoices come out around the first of the month, they are due on the 25th,” Lopez explained. “If people don’t pay that day, they get a penalty and then we give an additional two-week grace period to the 15th of the next month. At that point, they’re logged out.”
Jimenez said she was taken by surprise as the house is owned by a family member and she was unaware of the sewer charges. When she missed the 3 p.m. deadline to make a payment due on the 15th, her water service was cut off for a day.
It’s back, but Jimenez, who works as a paralegal, says she now has to pay $ 200 a month to pay off the sewer debt over 18 months, with penalties as long as the balance remains, plus a reconnection fee. unique $ 50.
“Somehow we’re supposed to find this money to not pay these penalty fees, but how are we going to do that?” she said in frustration.
Like other PWWA customers with county sewer service, Jimenez’s regular bill will now be higher. His water and sewer bill billed in September was $ 78.81, according to his billing statement.
An agreement with the county
This spring, county commissioners approved an agreement with the utility to take over the billing and collection of sewer charges.
“When we bill customers for wastewater, we don’t have the option for non-payment to simply shut off the sewer line,” Deputy County Manager Chuck McMahon told commissioners at their meeting. April 13.
McMahon did not specify the total amount owed during the public session, but said overdue sewer charges were piling up because the county had limited tools to collect them. Ultimately, the county had the power to take a lien on the properties and seize them, but McMahon said the approach was “a pretty big hammer.”
A water utility, on the other hand, “has the ability to turn off the water meter to force payment,” he said.
The deal, unanimously approved at that meeting, means customers sourcing water from PWWA now receive a combined water and sewer bill. The agreement came into effect on July 1.
The agreement creates new sources of revenue for the public service.
PWWA keeps 3 percent of the wastewater charges it collects and 25 percent of what it collects on overdue accounts, as well as late fees and service charges accrued on the accounts.
County manager Fernando Macias calculated that 3% of the average bills for the county’s 1,500 customers were around $ 25,000 per year, but that did not take into account what the utility could earn by collecting the charges. overdue accounts.
Additionally, effective July 1, the PWWA has set residential sewer rates ranging from a low of $ 12.36 to $ 36 depending on usage. Residential sewage-only customers pay a flat rate of $ 23.18 per month.
There is also a residential sewer connection fee of $ 2,500, including $ 500 for re-establishing a connection, plus an increased delinquency fee of $ 50.
Lopez said customers were notified of the changes this spring and had ample time to make payment arrangements if they were late.
The county has provided a copy of a notice to its wastewater customers who obtain water from the PWWA, dated May 20, advising them of the change and providing a window to address existing balances.
“If your wastewater account is overdue and you have a payment agreement with Doña Ana County, then LRGPWWA will honor that payment agreement,” the county notice said. On the other hand, customers who were not up to date should make arrangements with the utility.
Pandemic protections expire
New Mexico’s pandemic moratorium on shutting down gas and electricity services ended in May, followed by a 90-day transition period. A similar moratorium that applied to investor-owned water and sewer services has also expired.
Even if the New Mexico Public Regulatory Commission extended its moratorium on water and sewer services, that would not apply to a government entity such as PWWA.
At the end of the moratoriums, tens of thousands of New Mexicans behind on their bills were vulnerable to power or water cuts from August, even as the COVID-19 pandemic resumed this summer, driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
“Throughout the height of the pandemic, we have been working with everyone,” Lopez said. “We haven’t asked for any confirmation if they’ve had COVID or anything like that. “
The utility promoted federal assistance programs, including a rental assistance program for those affected by COVID-19 and associated work disruptions, which closed applications on September 15.
Still, Lopez said the utility depends on collecting fees and penalties for its income.
“We are getting to the point where the other people who pay bear the burden of the people who do not pay,” he said. “We don’t have the capacity to tax or anything like that, so the only revenue that comes in is from the water and sewer service.”