Craig Rudy

Charlotte County Utilities Director Craig Rudy says the number of delinquent water and sewer customers is growing since the shut-off moratorium started to protect people during the pandemic. The federal government is making it hard for the county to help people pay their water and sewer bills even as federal funds are paying electric bills to Florida Power and Light

You can’t argue with Uncle Sam, at least not his bankers.

The U.S. Treasury won’t let Charlotte County pay delinquent water and sewer bills for residents impoverished by the pandemic, even though it’s OK to pay their electric bills.

That’s because the county owns the water and sewer utility, but not the electric utility.

“We’ve asked and asked and asked,” said County Attorney Janette Knowlton of inquiries of the treasury. “They keep citing that it cannot be used for government revenue replacement.”

County staff have a plan, however, to help reimburse Charlotte County Utilities some of the growing delinquent bills that have so far exceed $353,000. That’s for both businesses and residences. The number will likely go up, because the county voted to halt shut-offs and late fees earlier this year. That was a gesture to ensure residents had access to fresh water and sewer services during the ongoing health crisis.

The county was authorized to receive $32.9 million in emergency funds this summer some time after Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The first installment of that aid was a check for $8.2 million, of which the county has handed out about 37% so far, staff told commissioners Tuesday. Technically, they have to spend that $8.2 million by the end of the year, but officials are hoping the deadline is extended.

Using CARES funding plus other federal aid, the county has handed out more than $300,000 in utility assistance this year to low income and also any household affected financially by the coronavirus. Only $20,640 went to Charlotte County Utilities and that was donations from local customers who were willing to help low income customers.

CCU Director Craig Rudy said the amount of delinquent customers, more than 1,100, is about twice the normal number due to the pandemic and the shut-off moratorium.

“Not only are more people delinquent, but also, they owe a lot more money,” he said. “It also has become a barometer and indication of how much people are hurting out there.”

Commissioners asked if unpaid bills could start to damage the operations of the utility. Not until it reaches about $1 million, Rudy estimated.

One way around the problem is to give the grant directly to the individual, but Charlotte County has opted not to do that, Human Services Director Carrie Walsh said. They give these kinds of grants directly to landlords, mortgage holders, utilities and daycare providers.

What if you give them the money and then say they lose their cut off protection if they don’t pay their bill, Commissioner Bill Truex said.

“You say disconnection and late fees apply,” Truex said.

CCU and other county offices are working out whether this is an option, spokesperson Caroline Wannall told the Sun. For other pandemic related grants to local residents, the county requires the resident to show proof of financial harm from the pandemic.

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