Garfield County towns see more people behind on utility bills as pandemic continues
Not only has COVID-19 led to job loss or reduced working hours, it has caused more Garfield County residents to fall behind on utilities payments.
Through a mixture of delinquent figures recently obtained from every municipality, some areas show major increases. Roughly speaking, some of these cities have either seen double, triple or even much more the amount of accounts fall in the arrears.
Of course, some cities differ on how they account for back payments. Some cities and towns wait until an account is 90 days overdue before it’s considered delinquent. Others have a more tiered system – 30, 60 and 90 day overdue bills.
Nevertheless, while cities like Glenwood Springs and Carbondale haven’t seen a gaugeable increase, Silt, New Castle, Rifle and Parachute have been noticeably much more affected by COVID-19.
For instance, Silt, Parachute, Rifle and New Castle combined are dealing with roughly $162,000 in delinquent accounts. Tack on Glenwood and Carbondale — two cities whose delinquent accounts are harder to gauge due to constant fluctuation – that number looks more like $244,737.
Right now, the city of Rifle has about $44,000 worth of delinquent liens attached to almost 40 residences.
According to city Finance Director Michelle Duran, many of those individual bills are $500.
If it weren’t for COVID-19, Duran said a typical year in Rifle will see that number hover around $5,000 worth of payments.
With Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and the federal government having placed a pause on evictions and utility shut-offs during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has led Mayor Barbara Clifton to question if it will cause the unfair punishment of local landlords.
In Rifle, landlords are ultimately responsible for their tenants’ late utility payments, which have been exacerbated this year due to COVID-19.
During a Dec. 2 discussion with city council, Planning and Zoning Director Nathan Lindquist said the city has currently set aside $25,000 to be allocated toward nonprofit human service agencies such as Reach-Out Colorado in Rifle and the River Center in New Castle. Another $25,000 is budgeted toward the Aspen Community Foundation, which in turn grants to various assistance agencies across the region.
Those organizations, said Lindquist, help defray late payments incurred by residents actively dealing with financial issues.
However, it’s not clear to the city of Rifle if such funding is available to landlords rather than tenants.
“I think that’s totally appropriate that we have money to help everyone,” Clifton said. “… I think a little bit of the catch 22 that happens with that scenario, a lot of those tenants aren’t applying.”
Silt Town Administrator Jeff Layman said typical delinquent payments past due 90 days have left the city needing to collect about $12,000. He said the actual number of folks in some form of delinquency have “pretty much doubled.”
On Feb. 1 this year, the town of Silt was only owed about $3,000 for delinquent accounts 90 days behind.
“Obviously recreation and tourism were hit hard in March and April and a great number of our folks drive up valley to work in those industries and those people were hurt,” Layman said. “But that’s my kind of 30,000-40,000-foot view of the situation.”
Silt typically deals with between four and six shut-offs in a normal year, said Layman. The city, however, usually works out plans with residents behind on their payments.
“Obviously, the governor’s order precludes utilities from disconnecting those folks – not that we would’ve done it anyway,” Layman said.
Silt also recently allocated funds to a local nonprofit to help residents pay their bills. Earlier this fall, the town gave $30,000 to the River Center in New Castle.
“We may be dealing with this for another year, at least through 2021,” Layman said. “That would be my outlook, but my crystal ball oftentimes isn’t very clear.”
New Castle Town Clerk Melody Harrison said the city started a list of delinquent accounts at the advent of COVID-19 earlier this year. People who contacted the city to say they were negatively impacted by the pandemic could be placed on the list to work out payment plans.
“We put them on that list and told them to pay what they could,” Harrison said.
Although 25 people in New Castle originally requested to be on the COVID-19 relief list, about half have now been removed, Harrison noted. New Castle is currently owed less than $7,000 in utilities payments. In a normal year, however, Harrison said owed payments average about $3,500.
Harrison said the city generally has to perform one or two utilities shut-offs per month in a normal year. This year, however, Harrison said the city would have needed to perform about a dozen shut-offs a month, had it not been for Gov. Polis’ utilities moratorium.
Still, the number of delinquencies are relatively minimal, said Harrison. She said the situation was much worse during the financial crisis of 2008, a time when Garfield County’s unemployment rate grew to 4.1%.
“We had hundreds of people that were in delinquent. We had people that were really struggling,” Harrison said. “It was a real conundrum back then. So this, by comparison, as far as water bills are concerned, it’s been really mild in New Castle. So that’s been really good news.”
Carbondale is another county municipality whose residents haven’t necessarily felt the full financial side-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Town Manager Jay Harrington said out of the city’s 2,960 customers, about 20 are normally behind on their payments.
“We haven’t had a noticeably higher rate of delinquencies in the last eight months of COVID-related issues,” he said. “… Some people might be late on a month basis, but they usually catch up.”
Harrington said that Carbondale also works with residents when they’re behind on their payments.
“We allow renters to pay the bills, so some of our delinquencies come from renters,” Harrington said. “And until we contact the priority owner and let them know they’re ultimately responsible for it, some people get caught in that side where a renter may not be keeping their bill current.”
Parachute Town Manager Stuart McArthur said most of Parachute’s residents are currently keeping up with their bills.
“It’s just kind of the frequent offenders,” he said. “We can’t say that it’s COVID, it’s just … they’re always late.”
However, regular delinquents have found themselves more behind on their payments. In fact, according to the city, their regular offenders account for about $7,500 in late payments right now. In a typical, non-COVID-19 year, that number’s usually around $3,500.
In Glenwood Springs, backed up utilities payments normally fluctuate. COVID-19, however, hasn’t really affected this normal fluctuation, said Chief Operating Officer Steve Boyd.
Currently, about $58,000 in water and electric payments is owed to Glenwood Springs.
“That’s not something that’s out of normal,” Boyd said. “It’ll fluctuate. It’ll get higher than that sometimes, and sometimes it’s a little bit lower than that.”
Last year’s delinquent accounts fluctuated between $30,000 to $90,000.
Throughout the course of 2020, however, the city anticipated COVID-19 posing a more adverse impact on commerce and sales.
“The first thing that we thought that would happen would be that our sales tax would decline, and that did. But not quite as bad as we feared,” Boyd said. “And the second thing that we were afraid of, we would have a whole bunch of delinquencies in water and electric, and we haven’t really seen that materialize.”
Still, if COVID-19 positive cases do persist into 2021, Boyd said the city anticipates a 10% increase in utilities delinquencies.
“We of course have a contingency plan for rising receivables and stretching their late payments out,” he said. “But, hopefully, that won’t happen.”
RIVER CENTER SUPPORT
For the River Center, a nonprofit organization in New Castle that supports local residents with financial assistance, the COVID-19 pandemic has also led to an increase in residents asking for help.
According to their numbers, the River Center reached 11 New Castle households in 2019, helping defray a total of $3,858.65 in back utilities payments. Now, in 2020, that number has increased to $7,500.47, which includes 16 households.
For Silt, 2019 saw the nonprofit organization help five households with $1,274 in total payments. In 2020, they so far helped 44 households with $29,916 in total payments.
And, for communities outside of New Castle and Silt, the organization has so far this year helped 25 households between Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, Rifle, Parachute/Battlement Mesa, defraying a total of about $9,239 in late payments.
In all, that totals about $46,656 to date, according to River Center figures.
“We are getting pretty low for funding outside of (New Castle and Silt),” Executive Director Heather Paulson said. “People can always reach out to us. If we can’t help, we’re going to help direct them to the person who can do that.”
An example of how low River Center funds have dropped due to COVID-19, Paulson said the organization had budgeted $26,000 at the beginning of 2020. In November alone, they’ve spent more than $50,000.”
“One of the things that we have noticed was utilities payments are not being paid because people are focusing on trying to get their rent,” Paulson said. “And with utilities not being shut off by several towns, they were just trying to make a minimum payment so those bills we had noticed were getting higher.”
Paulson said that some struggling families even wait until they’ve exhausted all their resources before reaching out.
“There’s a lot of families that are not reaching out until kind of the last minute,” she said. “They’ve been using all their savings just to get by, and now that’s depleted.”
Clientele includes people in the service industry, housekeepers and undocumented immigrants, Paulson said.
“The majority of these families, they just want to work, they want to provide for their families,” Paulson said. “And just seeing the community kind of coming together to help each other out, that has been the success this year.”
To apply for financial assistance, visit the River Center website or call them 970-984-4333.
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The Bureau of Land Management reported a 20-acre fire along Baxter Pass in far western Garfield County on Monday night.