Gretna toughens penalties for bill nonpayment

Gretna residents accustomed to leniency when it comes to nonpayment or late payment of their water bills could soon get a rude awakening now that the city has adopted a new policy for disconnection of water service.

The Gretna City Council adopted new rules at its last meeting that will require the disconnection of service on accounts that are more than 75 days in arrears.

Board members did agree to allow “hardship” extensions for payment, but that extension can only be used once every 12 months and is only available to residents who have a solid history of making timely payments, according to the new guidelines pushed for by Councilman Vincent Cox III.

Cox said the new rules will establish “consistency” in the water department and give residents a clear understanding of their rights.

However, Mayor Ronnie Harris said the new rules also will lead to more residents seeing their water disconnected than under the city’s previous system.

That system involved using brightly colored “tags” to warn residents who were in arrears and included, at times, a more lenient payment process.

“With this they will not have water, with the tags they would have water,” said Harris, adding that he expects residents will be shocked by the new rules.

“I just want to make it perfectly clear that if you don’t pay your bill, we are going to cut your water off.”

Cox pushed for revamping of the city’s water system because he was bothered by the “tag fee” Gretna added on to delinquent water bills.

That surcharge was assessed whenever city employees had to come out and place a tag on a home to warn residents that their bills were overdue.

Cox said adding on a charge to bills that were overdue just made it harder for people who were likely already struggling.

He also noted that since Gretna recently increased its water rates, it really didn’t need the surcharge anymore.

He wanted a standardized process instead of allowing a single employee to decide who got an extension.

“Basically the administration came up with something that I thought better for the folks to live with,” Cox said.

However, the new guidelines may actually make things more difficult for residents because they eliminate the city’s discretion. Harris noted that the city always went after scofflaws who just refused to pay, but it would work with those residents who experienced financial difficulty.

The tag fee was a way for residents to avoid disconnection longer, and it allowed the city to recoup some of its costs up front.

Now, residents definitely will have their service removed, and to get reconnected they will pay their delinquent bills, a $50 reconnection fee and a 10 percent surcharge on the delinquent bills.

However, Cox noted that the new rules standardized the process by which residents can seek a “hardship” extension and extends that provision to more residents. Once granted, residents must pay 50 percent of their delinquent bills, and they then have an additional 60 days to pay the balance, plus any new charges.

Councilwoman Raylyn Beevers raised the question of how the city will determine what qualifies as a hardship, and both Harris and Cox said the city won’t wade into that debate.

“The only threshold you have to meet is to apply for it,” Harris said.

Residents will be notified of the new guidelines in their upcoming water bills, Harris said. Harris has said delinquency has doubled in recent years, and the city gets roughly 100 delinquent accounts per month.