Water customers dispute city's billing, shutoff policies

The city of St. Helens needs to be more flexible in dealing with water customers who are behind on their payments.

That’s the message Nathan Johnson and other disgruntled residents hope to send with a petition they plan to circulate in St. Helens, Johnson told the Spotlight Tuesday, June 10.

Johnson said he and other people with whom he has spoken believe the St. Helens Water Department is insensitive in dealing with low-income households that ask for more time in order to make utility payments.

“These people will literally give you, like, two weeks maximum,” said Johnson, a cabinetmaker by trade. Rather than allow more flexibility beyond that time, he added, “They’ll shut your water off, whether you have children in the home or not.”

Johnson remarked, “The pit of my soul tells me it should be illegal to treat people like that.”

St. Helens Finance Director Jon Ellis said the city tries to accommodate late payments as best it can, but he acknowledged that the Water Department sticks to its established policies “99.9 percent of the time.”

The department allows customers considerably longer than two weeks to pay their bills, however.

Bills are due on the 10th day of the month, after being mailed out to customers about two and a half weeks prior. The water shutoff date is the second Tuesday of the following month.

“We give them a whole month more to bring in a payment, and now they’re expecting that we wait a whole month more, you know — some people,” said Ellis, adding of the shutoff date, “We can’t push it out much more.”

Johnson and others in his nascent group consider the Water Department’s stance particularly unfair because of how important access to potable water is, Johnson said.

“It just seems very lopsided,” Johnson said. “People can live without electricity. They absolutely cannot without water.”

Johnson praised the Columbia River People’s Utility District, which provides electricity in the St. Helens area, as a counterexample to the St. Helens Water Department. He said PUD customers have greater flexibility and are treated better by the power utility.

Part of Johnson’s strategy will involve using the PUD as a local contrast with the water utility, he said.

“We’re going to petition that maybe the electric company’s way of doing things should be the gold standard,” said Johnson.

While Johnson said he and other critics of the Water Department intended to write up their complaints and form a petition by this week, he said they had not yet spoken with the St. Helens city administration or pulled papers for a ballot initiative.

“We’re kind of going into it blind,” Johnson said. “It’s a bunch of people that have never really been active in this way before.”

The water utility in Scappoose operates very similarly to its St. Helens counterpart. Customers who do not make their payments on time are subject to having their water shut off, leaving them unable to run their taps, shower or even flush their toilets.

St. Helens actually extended the shutoff date for customers who miss payments three years ago, from 16 days after bills are due to the second Tuesday of the following month — effectively doubling the grace period, Ellis indicated. It also allows customers to avoid a $20 delinquent charge on their water bills by calling to make payment arrangements for up to five days after bills are due.

But, Ellis said, “We tell most people, we can’t be the bank of last resort.”

Both Scappoose and St. Helens raised their water rates last year. St. Helens also changed its utility assistance program for senior citizens this year, closing the program to new applicants and reducing the subsidy provided for most elderly households.

Part of the retooling of St. Helens’ utility assistance program includes contingency funding for low-income households. That part of the program will be administered by Community Action Team Inc., a St. Helens-based nonprofit organization with ties to the St. Helens City Council.

Ellis said the city expects to work out details of the low-income assistance with CAT this summer.

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