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Energy & Environment

San Marcos Is Paying Off Customers' Late Utility Bills. Here's Why.

a row of residential electricity meters
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT

The City of San Marcos is forgiving utility bill debt for all accounts that are a month or more past due.

City Council members made the decision Tuesday after a regular update on the Utility Assistance Program, which has now been canceled. The program was created in March to help residents struggling to pay their bills during the pandemic or after February's winter storm.

Council Member Shane Scott suggested forgiving the debt entirely so council could “move on,” referring to the frequency with which the program was brought up during meetings.

"Why don't we just let it go and start billing people next month?" Scott asked. "I'm really kind of tired of talking about this."

In recent months, the city had been working on outreach; sending applications out to accounts more than 60 days past due, and making sure materials were available in both English and Spanish, for example.

Council Member Alyssa Garza acknowledged the city's efforts, but ultimately said people struggling to pay their bills didn't need another application added to their plate.

"A lot of folks, they’re hanging on by nothing," she said. "There [are] severe mental health issues going on right now, a lot of depression, a lot of issues because people are drowning."

Garza said the majority of her neighbors "had no idea about the utility assistance program." She recently went around her neighborhood handing out flyers for her missing cat and included information about the program on a portion of the flyer.

"These people are getting notices for things that are overdue every day," she added. "I think there’s a deep disconnect in the proximity between a lot of us [on City Council] and poverty."

City Council had originally set aside $1 million to cover customers' unpaid bills. As of Tuesday, the city had spent $475,000 on 507 accounts. Once the city spends the remaining money set aside, it will need to come up with another half a million dollars to cover the balance.

Some council members were concerned about the financial implications forgiving the debt would have on the city's credit.

"I hate to take a half a million-dollar hit,” Mayor Jane Hughson said. “I don’t know what that’s going to do to future bond ratings."

The measure passed 5-2, with the mayor and Council Member Melissa Derrick voting against it.

Council members also unanimously agreed to reinstate late fees and utility disconnections on Sept. 1.

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