The city of Weslaco will begin to shut off service to residential and commercial customers who have not paid their water bills in several months. The shutoffs are slated to begin Nov. 1.
The news came after city officials said delinquent water and sewer bills have ballooned from approximately $55,000 before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the Rio Grande Valley this spring, to more than $330,000 by late August.
“In March, it jumped up to ($198,000), then 239, then 280. It’s at ($298,000) at the end of July,” Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez explained to the commission during a meeting late last month.
By the end of August, that figure had swelled to $330,000, he said.
The coronavirus pandemic hit the local economy hard, with multiple retailers and other businesses shutting down for weeks or months on end. And though the economy has recovered somewhat since regional lockdown restrictions began loosening in May, at around 10%, the Valley’s unemployment rate still hovers a couple of percentage points higher than the rest of the state.
In early spring, as the Weslaco City Commission saw the economic impacts being wrought upon their city by the virus, they made the decision to continue providing water and sewer service even if a customer couldn’t pay.
Such essential services should not cease in the middle of a pandemic where maintaining good hygiene is essential to combating the spread, they reasoned.
“A lot of those places were closing down and people were not employed, so the commission instructed us, really, not to shut anybody’s water off during that period,” Perez said during a phone interview.
But now, as the delinquent balances mount, the city can no longer afford such generosity, nor may such largesse be warranted for all those who are delinquent.
“It’s six times what it was, and so there are some individuals on that list that we think have the ability to pay and they’re just taking advantage of it,” Perez said, adding that many of them are commercial accounts.
As Perez explained to the commission, unlike other public services, such as street maintenance or public safety, water and sewer operations are paid for directly through the payments from the customers who utilize those services.
And it’s not just people who reside within the city limits and pay city property taxes who use Weslaco water. The city serves customers who live in unincorporated areas around the city limits, as well.
If the delinquencies continue to grow, it can affect Weslaco’s ability to continue providing its water service, or its ability to continue paying millions in outstanding debt, Perez said.
“We can’t continue to do this. It’s getting worse and worse. And we have an obligation because we have an outstanding debt in the water and sewer (fund),” Perez said. “We have an obligation to the people who are paying,” he said.
Realizing that customers may not be able to pay a delinquent bill in one lump sum, the city began sending out notices to delinquent customers urging them to set up payment plans.
How much time a customer has to get out of arrears depends on how much they owe. Plans vary from six months to two years.
A person who is $100-$200 behind, for instance, has six months to pay off the debt, whereas someone who is $700.01 to $1,200 behind has a year. Customers who are delinquent more than $2,400 have 24 months to make good.
Nor are all delinquent balances eligible to be part of a payment plan. Only outstanding balances from March 1 through Oct. 31 of this year qualify.
Penalties assessed before March 1, disconnection fees and returned check fees are not eligible.
However, residents may also set up payment plans for delinquent trash and brush charges, according to a draft copy of the payment plan contract.
While explaining the issue to the commission last month, Perez said he had seen numerous people with limited income making efforts to pay their bills, while other accounts had amassed delinquencies in the thousands.
Of Weslaco’s 10,500 water customers, just 200-300 are delinquent, Perez said.
“We can’t continue to carry them on forever,” Perez said.
“We’re gonna work with those individuals, but they need to come in and sit down with us and work on developing a plan,” he said.
Residents may call (956) 968-3181 to learn more.