All Sarasota city residents facing water shut-offs to get red tags placed on doors with information about applying for COVID-19 funding assistance

Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie wins colleagues’ support for action as pandemic continues

The Sarasota city commissioners meet in person on Nov. 2 for the first time since the spring. Precautions have been taken in the Commission Chambers to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Facing the board members across the dais are (from left) City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown and City Attorney Robert Fournier. News Leader image

At the request of the Sarasota city commissioners this week, staff will begin leaving red tags on the homes of any persons who are scheduled to have their city water cut off within five days for non-payment of their bills.

Those tags are to provide information about how individuals can apply to Sarasota County for a CARES Act grant to help them deal with loss of income as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said.

This is information available about individual assistance applications for CARES Act grants, as provided on the Sarasota County website. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During the board’s regular meeting on Nov. 2, Freeland Eddie raised new concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on many of the city’s 20,000 Utility Department customers.

After talking with Utility Director Bill Riebe and Finance Director Kelly Strickland, Freeland Eddie said, she learned that city staff shut off water to about 746 customers between July 1 and Sept. 23. The average number of shut-offs under pre-pandemic conditions, she continued, was approximately 250 a month.

Her understanding, Freeland Eddie continued on Nov. 2, is that approximately 20% to 25% of city residents still are awaiting unemployment benefits from the State of Florida. As a result, she added, many people “are getting further and further behind” on paying their city water bills.

Prior to the beginning of the pandemic, she pointed out, a person could work out a plan with the Utility Department staff to pay past-due bills over the course of a year. The thinking that led to that practice, she said, was that the department’s staff did not want residents “to dig a hole so deep” that the residents never could get caught up.

As a result of the pandemic, Freeland Eddie noted, the Utility Department has been allowing customers to take more than 12 months to catch up on their bills, so they can make smaller payments “and still tackle some of their other bills …”

“None of us ever thought that COVID would be a reality for our community,” she continued, “and that there would be extended periods of unemployment,” which have exacerbated individuals’ abilities to pay past-due bills.

Moreover, no city customer, she added, will have his or her water shut off if the customer can demonstrate to Utility Department staff that he or she has applied for county CARES Act funding.

(Individual grants initially ranged up to $5,000; however, on Nov. 4, at the recommendation of County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, the county commissioners raised the limit to $10,000.)

Jan Thornburg, senior communications manager for the city, explained to The Sarasota News Leader in a Nov. 4 email
“The City is working closely with Sarasota County to connect non-paying customers with federal CARES funds. Prior to shut off, the City is communicating with the County to determine whether the customer has applied for federal CARES assistance. As of Oct. 30, 2020, 101 customers have applied for CARES funding (or other funding) and 53 have received funding.”

“In addition,” Thornburg wrote, “62 accounts are part of a payment program with the City.

“We are making every effort to work with utility customers to help keep their water on,” Thornburg continued. “It’s important to note that due to bond covenants the City cannot provide free utility services.”

City Manager Tom Barwin participates in the June 15 meeting via the Webex videoconferencing technology. File image

During the Nov. 2 City Commission meeting, City Manager Barwin also explained that city staff has been tracking the progress of CARES Act applications, so staff will know when customers’ payments to the Utility Department might be expected.

He pointed out that, at any given time, approximately 30 of the city’s 20,000 water customers have lost their service for non-payment of bills. During the commission’s regular meeting on Oct. 19, he reported that 41 customers had had their water service terminated as of that time.

Thornburg noted in her Nov. 4 email to the News Leader, “The number of water shut-offs is continually rolling, as most customers who default pay very quickly to have their service restored. … The average number of accounts at any one time with no service is 30-40.”

“There are 11 people tomorrow who are being considered for shutoff,” Barwin said during the Nov. 2 board meeting. City staff has been working to ensure those persons are aware of that, he noted.

Staff outreach efforts

When Commissioner Hagen Brody asked for details about how water shut-off notifications are handled, Finance Director Strickland explained that, a couple of years ago, staff implemented an Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR) system. That sends out notices to persons with delinquent water bills, letting them know when payments are 30 days past due and then 60 days past due, she said. It gives them five days within which to make a payment to avoid loss of service, Strickland said.

The IVR system, she continued, sends out texts and emails, along with the telephone messages. However, she acknowledged, the program is successful only “if we have the correct contact information.”

Staff undertook a major educational campaign, she pointed out, to try to ensure customers provided accurate contact information to the city.

Prior to the launch of the IVR program, Strickland noted, staff put a red tag on the door of a customer’s home, warning of the impending loss of service.

Kelly Strickland. Image contributed by City of Sarasota

Additionally, she explained, if a person is on a payment plan with the city and the person is close to the due date without having made a payment, staff will put a red tag on the individual’s door.

“I’m not satisfied with that,” Commissioner Brody responded, referring to the IVR system. “I’m not confident that contact information is up-to-date for enough residents. … I just think that a physical notification makes much more of an impact on someone than just another voicemail or piece of mail from the city.”

Moreover, Brody continued, “I don’t think that we should be disconnecting people’s water during this health crisis.” As long as the city’s public health emergency remains in effect, he added, no water service should be halted.

The individual response to COVID-19, he pointed out, “is based on people being able to keep themselves clean and safe, and you can’t do that without water.”

Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie reminded him that Strickland had mentioned the fact that staff had reinstated the red tag method of notice.

As he understood Strickland, Brody countered, only people on payment plans who fail to pay their bills get the red tag notices.

“I would agree that anybody who is in danger of shutoff should get a red tag,” Freeland Eddie responded. Further, she said, many people in the city are not savvy about technology and others simply do not use technology to conduct their personal business. If those persons get red tags, she said, they perceive such notices as being legitimate. The tags include the City Seal and a city phone number, she noted.

“I would agree with that,” Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch responded.

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown pointed out that when customers “get a phone call or email [from the city], they come in immediately and pay.”

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown. File photo

However, Brown continued, if the commissioners wanted staff to reinstitute the red tag notice system for every delinquent water customer, Strickland could address that.

If that is the desire of the commission, Strickland said, “We’ll get it started.”

When Ahearn-Koch asked for any comments on that point from Commissioner Liz Alpert or Commissioner Willie Shaw, Shaw said he had “No problem” with the red tag recommendation.

Conversely, Alpert told her colleagues she feels the IVR system is more efficient. She voiced concern about the staff time that would be involved in going to 200 or 250 doors a month. “That’s like a whole employee to do that.”

People get final notices on bills from the electric company, she pointed out. “If they’re living at that address, they get mail at that address. … Why wouldn’t that be adequate?”

Nonetheless, Strickland told the commissioners, “It’s not difficult” to have staff put red tags on doors of customers five days before the persons are scheduled to lose water service.

Alpert maintained that notices sent by mail should be sufficient.

“It depends on how quickly … the mail actually gets out,” Deputy City Manager Brown told her. “Physically going out there and putting [a red tag] on the door is probably quicker.”

Referring to Commissioner Brody’s comments, Mayor Ahearn-Koch noted that the situation during the pandemic is “a little bit different than normal times.”

“Sometimes Sarasota mail goes to Tampa before it comes back to Sarasota,” Freeland Eddie pointed out. A piece of mail the city sends out on a Friday might not reach its destination in the city until the following Monday or Tuesday, she added.

Then, noting what she said with a laugh was “side eye” from Shaw, she apologized. Still, she said, her comment about mail delivery was the truth. (Shaw is a retired mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service.)

When Ahearn-Koch asked for board consensus about directing staff to reinstitute the red tag policy, she won the commissioners’ agreement.