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The Negative Impacts Of Extending Utility Moratorium Is Explored In Sherman

Extension of the moratorium on the shut-off of utilities has local officials concerned about the negative impacts it could have on residents. AP photo

SHERMAN — Legislation which, when signed by Governor Cuomo, extends a moratorium on the shut-off of water, gas, electric and telephone utilities, has municipal officials concerned about the negative impact it could have on residents in the future, Sherman Mayor Colleen Meeder told members of the Village Board at their recent meeting.

The bill, which reached Cuomo’s desk on April 29, will make New York state the first to establish a moratorium on the shut-off of both privately and publicly-owned utilities. It extends last year’s amendment to the Public Service Law prohibiting shut off of services during the COVID-19 State of Emergency. This legislation, which was set to expire on March 31, 2021, had been extended until July 1, 2022. Residents can choose to enter into a deferred payment plan to pay their utility bills, Meeder said.

What is new about the bill, Meeder said, is that this legislation prohibits municipalities from relevying unpaid or past due water charges during the entire duration of the state of emergency. Meeder stressed that this legislation pertains to water service, but not sewer service.

“The water cannot be shut off, is not being re-levied into taxes, and there is no interest or penalty accruing during the COVID-19 State of Emergency,” Meeder said. “So what incentive is there for anyone to formally engage in an unenforceable agreement at this time, when they can simply choose to make payments on their own or wait until next year’s relevy?”

Because there are no penalties and no risk of losing service, many people may forgo paying their water bills and then face financial hardship when the state of emergency is lifted, Meeder said.

“This is my greatest concern — it could lead to people being at risk of losing their homes two plus years into the future,” she said. “No one is thinking about the effect this will have on people in the future.”

The law (Extension/Modification of Utility Termination Moratorium Law) also requires that notices be sent to all water utility customers to inform them of their rights under the law and to give them the opportunity to enter into deferred payments, Meeder said.

“It will involve the clerk/treasurer adding back water balances to over 50 accounts, printing those 50 individual statements, and sending out information explaining to them what has occurred and why, and, most importantly, how this could affect them in the future,” Meeder said. “Managing the water and sewer bills is becoming an increasingly time-exhausting function.”

Meeder said the New York Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials share these concerns. “We all concur this is a challenging time. NYCOM has found that many people intentionally roll their water and sewer bills onto their taxes, and there is no provision in the law for them to ‘opt in’ to have their water bill re-levied as they routinely do,” she said.

Meeder told trustees that this is a particular worry for people who escrow their payments with their mortgage company, as their mortgage payments could go up precipitously when the state of emergency ends.

“We’re trying to mitigate the effect this will have on people,” Meeder said.

Because water is a public asset, Meeder said, municipalities are required to “efficiently collect on accounts, with penalties and re-levying capabilities , , , we are obligated to fairly collect the accounts for all stakeholders and use those funds to continue to support the infrastructure belonging to the public.”

Meeder reiterated that it is the residential customer who stands to be most effected by this law, if signed by Cuomo.

“These are minimal impacts to out of the village, in comparison to the potential impact it can have to the individual customer who allows the water bills to go unpaid,” she said. “The state legislators’ best intentions for today have future consequences. Rapid decisions continue to be made by lawmakers not understanding the actual effects of those decision.”

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