San Marcos racks up half a million dollars in owed utility bills during pandemic

Hays

SAN MARCOS, Texas (KXAN) — San Marcos is extending its freeze on utility disconnects for another month amid the coronavirus pandemic.

City council members initially decided to suspend utility disconnects for 90 days, set to expire Monday, June 22.

On Thursday, city council members decided to extend the program while staff work to find a way to transition back to normal operations.

“We will have a definitive resolution on July 7th,” said Mayor Jane Hughson at Thursday’s special city council meeting.

The city has coordinated 1,518 payment arrangements since March 23, according to Ernest Cavasos, utility customer service and information system manager.

The Community Action, Inc., which partners with the city to help residents pay their utilities, has seen an increase in new clients.

Margery Marshall says since March, the group has had 162 new families from San Marcos alone seeking help.

Marshall says many of these cases resonate with her on a personal level; she remembers her single mother trying to make ends meet.

“She was constantly racing those deadlines to pay the bills. I saw that growing up and I can see that in the families that we work with,” she says.

She says 463 new families have come to them from all their service areas: Hays, Caldwell and Blanco counties.

“More families applying through the COVID application with abundance of children– like 8 children, 10 children. The parents have been apparently able to support the larger families but now their salaries–they’ve either lost their jobs or had them furloughed or cut in half,” Marshall says.

She says San Marcos’ extension on suspending utility disconnects gives those families more breathing room.

“It’s a tremendous relief of stress,” Marshall says.

“We have such a log of files that we can’t get to them immediately and it really helps that they are not being issued late fees continuously, day by day, and that they’re not going to get disconnected in two days and they’re panicking over the weekend,” she says.

As of June 8, utility customers 60 days past due owed San Marcos $500,000, said Victoria Runkle, interim finance director.

About 300 of those, Runkle says, are commercial accounts.

“A little bit of oxygen can get them past the point so that they can survive,” says Scott Gregson, who is responsible for about 30 utility bills between his commercial properties.

Gregson says the temporary suspension helps local businesses catch up.

“Every little bit of money adds up. It’s just the ability to pay their insurance bill or pay their employees,” he says.

Options to help customers include using COVID-19 funding and dipping into the Community Action Fund, which currently has $93,000, according to Runkle.

The city is also offering a waiver on late fees on a case-by-case basis. So far, Cavasos says 250 people have applied for and received the waiver.

Kyle city council members made a similar move last week to extend utility suspensions until staff works on an emergency funding grant. In March, Austin Energy also suspended disconnects because of the pandemic.

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