Programs, grants a lifeline for utility bills

Paying utility bills continues to challenge many as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

There were 3,317 delinquent city of Dover utility bill accounts, totaling $1,446,120.86 as of Aug. 31, which assistant city manager Matt Harline said was almost double the normal amount.

Seaford saw 95 electric and 35 water disconnects in August, compared to a typical 30 to 40 for electric and 15 to 25 for water, according to the city. No disconnects were performed from April through July.

And without a litany of payment programs, suspended disconnects, grant money and aid, the fallout could have been far worse statewide.

Seaford’s municipal government offered an installment plan for the first time, and all 38 applications were approved.

“Our staff worked with our affected businesses and residential customers on a case-by-case basis, and we were able to tailor a payment program that met the needs of our customers and helped them cope with the stress of the situation,” city manager Charles Anderson said.

Dover offers residents and businesses four- to six-month plans to pay off penalties, with monthly usage bills still due.

Mr. Harline said about 950 customers have used pandemic relief funds through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and some also received Disaster Housing Assistance Program funds for rent and utilities.

Funding from the CARES Act for utility bills are also available.

From March through June this year, Dover saw a reduction of about $7 million in cash receipts that were either tax payments or utility payments compared to the same period last year.

“Some of this is reduced usage of utilities, and some is outstanding bills,” Mr. Harline said.

Of 169 COVID-19 plans from March through Aug. 31, 125 have been satisfied, 25 accounts are current on their agreements and 19 accounts are delinquent.

The city also has 361 standard plans open, with 231 current ($28,757.16 outstanding) and 130 delinquent ($68,309.72). A total of $56,421.33 has been paid on all short-term agreements.

Said Mr. Harline, “We have tried to work with everyone we can and have tried to help citizens access resources.

“The city utility has to collect what it can, of course, because the other residents and businesses in Dover eventually pay for the lost revenue.”

Through money received from the Delaware Municipal Electric Corp. (DEMEC), Seaford was able to apply the funds to 195 electric accounts with outstanding balances for usage in March.

No delinquent fees were applied prior to terminations in April through August in Seaford.

According to Seaford officials, no money has been pulled from the reserve fund to pay bills at this point.

Need to reach out

On March 19, the Delaware Electric Cooperative temporarily suspended disconnects for nonpayment in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They will begin again sometime in September, “which makes it all the more important that members who are behind on their bills reach out to us as soon as possible,” spokeswoman Lauren Irby said.

Also, DEC implemented payment plan options, and 292 accounts have been enrolled. The repayments can stretch for months depending on the amount owed, Ms. Irby said.

She added that DEC has “not recognized any particular trends at this time.”

Enrollment in a payment plan is available by calling (855) 332-9090.

“Our members rely on DEC to provide reliable and affordable service,” Ms. Irby said. “We implemented these payment plans to assist them as they recover from the impact of the pandemic.

“We understand that many Delawareans are struggling during this time, and we will do everything we can to work with members to ensure their lights stay on.”

Additionally, DEC provided information at delaware.coop on local agencies in Kent and Sussex counties that could potentially provide assistance.

In Kent County, there’s been no assistance offered in specific response to COVID-19, Levy Court finance director Susan Durham said, noting that they “have always offered payment plans to those in distress with their finances.”

Ms. Durham said, “Our sewer delinquency has had no significant increase when compared to this time last year.”

Chesapeake Utilities launched a SHARING Program grant for customers economically impacted by the pandemic.

“We know this is an incredibly difficult time for our customers,” said Jennifer Clausius, president of Chesapeake Utilities’ Emergency Energy Recipient Program, which oversees the SHARING Program.

“We are thankful for the commitment of our partner organizations, customers and employees who have helped us support families on the Delmarva Peninsula since 1983.”

Plans to begin the SHARING Program are ongoing, spokesman Justin Mulcahy said.

Chesapeake Utilities awarded $21,640 in overall grants this year, including $17,100 since mid-March. COVID-19 payments amounted to $6,800, and the average grant amount per customer was $133. The company provided 163 grants overall this year, including 68 that were COVID-19-related.

In August, DEMEC announced that its board of directors voted to donate $250,000 to support customers struggling to pay utility bills during the pandemic.

“This is another step we can take to help customers during their greatest time of need,” DEMEC president and CEO Patrick McCullar said in a news release.

“It is a great example of the power of community joint action, coming together to help customers meet their essential needs during this difficult time.”

The donation was to be split among DEMEC’s eight member communities. For more information on how to apply, contact the municipalities. More information on public power is available at publicpowerde.com.

Sussex County’s support

Sussex County has suspended a 3% accommodations tax that collected about $50,000 in January and February. The suspension — which began April 7 — remains in effect for the tax, which is a surcharge “for the rent of any room or rooms in a hotel, motel or tourist home in unincorporated portions of the county, with revenue collected earmarked for projects and programs, such as beach nourishment, waterway dredging, economic development and water quality/flood control,” according to the county.

The tax suspension was not retroactive, and no collections will be made until it is lifted.

The county also contributed $250,000 to the Delaware State Housing Authority’s Housing Assistance Program to supporters in Sussex.

In addition, lease payment collections for the county’s airport/business park were deferred.

“Certainly, the county understood the unprecedented situation and what it could represent in terms of financial hardships to residents and business owners alike, and that’s why County Council and our leadership took those proactive steps to lend whatever support we could and keep our local economy strong,” county spokesman Chip Guy said.

Full-time Sussex County residents can establish 12- or 24-month payment plans for delinquent taxes, though the overall scope of need won’t be realized until the Sept. 30 deadline passes. The process was in place pre-coronavirus, and only bills have been issued.

Payment plans can be extended if the customer makes a good-faith effort to resolve, Mr. Guy said. An application is available at sussexcountyde.gov by clicking “Online Payments” in the top right corner. Payment plan recipients must own the property, and it must be a primary residence.

Those who miss the deadline are subject to penalties of 1% for sewer, 1% for school property taxes and 1.5% for county tax.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.