As some Bowling Green residents woke up Monday morning, they saw the town’s public utility workers turning off their water.
A total of 251 Caroline County homes received notification in the past week that water would be disconnected for nonpayment. There were 78 such notices in the town of Bowling Green and another 173 that went out to other Caroline residents.
Eighteen disconnections took place in Bowling Green Monday. None had occurred elsewhere in the county.
The disconnection notices are the result of the county Board of Supervisors and Bowling Green Town Council both recently voting to implement an exemption from Gov. Ralph Northam’s moratorium on utility disconnections during the COVID-19 pandemic. Port Royal’s Town Council hasn’t voted on the issue.
The exemption states that if total arrearages exceed 1 percent of a utility provider’s annual operating budget, disconnections can take place.
County officials said there is concern about turning off residents’ water in the winter during a pandemic, but they were also fearful that past-due bills would become so burdensome they’d be unmanageable without a disconnection notice and establishment of a payment plan.
“Of course, there is concern. We want everybody to have their water,” Caroline Supervisor Clay Forehand said. “But at the same time, the county is not made of money and neither is the town.”
A breakdown of Caroline’s qualification for the exemption shows that county residents owed a total of $101,350 at the time the board discussed it. That was more than 3 percent of the annual $2.9 million operating budget for the county’s utility fund, but officials said the outstanding balance has come down since.
The county also received $25,798 from the federal government’s Municipal Utilities Relief Program. Caroline Director of Public Works Joseph Schiebel said $19,921 of those funds have been exhausted.
He said there are 49 accounts that are more than 60 days delinquent and the remaining $4,586 won’t cover all of those costs. Schiebel estimates that will leave approximately $6,000 in unpaid water bills.
Schiebel also noted the Board of Supervisors authorized the county to reimburse residents $48,225 in penalties that accrued from March 1 of last year through Nov. 30. Those funds were applied to all accounts on Dec. 17.
Letters were sent out with an application to receive federal assistance to 430 residences on Dec. 18 and 381 of those accounts are no longer delinquent. That includes 124 that recently received a disconnection notice.
Still, County Administrator Charles Culley said it’s been a struggle to get residents to submit paperwork and apply for the funds.
“The program is there to try to help everybody and to get people on payment plans,” Culley said. “We’ve waived penalties and interest and various things are being done to make it affordable for people.”
In Bowling Green, utilities bring in $731,400 annually and current arrearages are $10,665 (1.46 percent).
One town resident said her average two-month water bill is $250. Residents of two income-based apartment complexes in Bowling Green noted their leases state if their utilities are disconnected they could face eviction.
Town Manager Melissa Lewis said 12 of the 78 notices sent out went to those two apartment complexes. Six had water shut off Monday morning, but five of those paid by the afternoon.
Lewis said residents will have their water restored as long as they contact the town’s office and establish a payment plan. She said there was a public hearing on the issue on Feb. 4 and no input was received.
Bowling Green received $4,154 in federal relief funds, but the deadline for residents to apply was Feb. 12. Officials said customers who submitted applications won’t be disconnected until all applications are reviewed.
Bowling Green Councilman Arthur Wholey is the only member of the two governing bodies that voted against ending the moratorium. Wholey said he did so because he was concerned that officials were combining those that may be taking advantage of the moratorium with others who are experiencing a financial hardship.
Wholey noted Rappahannock Electric Cooperative isn’t disconnecting customers, so perhaps the town shouldn’t either. He said when residents have their utilities shut off, it opens up the possibility of county officials condemning their homes.
Wholey, who is also the Bowling Green’s fire chief, said he doesn’t believe the town’s collection shortfall is enough to justify shutting off residents’ water.
“I’m only one opinion on Town Council,” Wholey said. “But I feel until things come back to a more normal day-to-day operation, there needs to be some leeway given.”
Taft Coghill Jr: 540/374-5526