N.C. towns find ways to support residents, keep public systems afloat

Jack Cassidy, NCLM Communications Associate

Jacksonville, Hillsborough and cities across the state show how local resiliency and community assistance can be one in the same.

As with nearly every aspect of local government, the work often happens behind the scenes. Water, parks, trash: services get provided, every day and with little fanfare.

It follows, then, that the crises can fail to grab public attention as well. That’s exactly what’s happening now with utility systems all across North Carolina cities and towns.

The problem is solvency. Always an expensive undertaking, the service of water and wastewater became especially problematic with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cash flows stopped across communities. People were inside and people lost jobs. It was quickly apparent that many citizens would face temporary problems with bill payments, including rent and water bills.

Towns stepped up immediately. Over 40 municipalities put into place non-cutoff plans, which ensured that residents would not lose water access if they were unable to pay. Soon after, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order, mandating that residents not be cutoff should they be unable to meet their monthly payments. As with many other aspects of the economy, things reached a grinding halt.

The water, though, still flowed. It still occupied a massive space on municipality balance sheets, but now without any revenue coming in. This created budgeting problems.

“Honestly, we’re just trying to survive,” Bessemer City Manager James Inman said in May. “I can’t emphasize how difficult a hit it was to have the revenue loss in water and sewer.”

Another problem was the backlog in payment it created for citizens, which increased the likelihood of future nonpayment.

“When you put people behind four and five months on their payments, you know how this goes. People just won’t ever be able to pay,” NCLM Executive Director Paul Meyer told WRAL in July.

The governor allowed the executive order provision affecting utility cutoffs to expire at the end of July, but the funding gaps and economic problems for residents remained.

To combat the issue, many towns established payment programs. Kannapolis followed that route, then went a step further by also serving as a conduit between customers and various charities that could help residents in need. The goal was not just to improve the financial standing of the utility system, but also to serve the community during an immensely difficult time.

Perhaps no city accomplished this feat better than Jacksonville, whose problem-solving shows both how towns serve their communities and how quickly our communities can respond when provided with relief.

The City of Jacksonville, due to its standing as an “Entitlement City” with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, receives yearly funding through the Community Development Block Grants. Under that designation, they also received some additional funding through this spring’s federal CARES Act, separate from the muchdiscussed larger appropriation in the legislation designated for state and local governments – of which North Carolina cities and towns received very little.

When that money was received, they established the Utility Payment Program.

“It’s a common misconception that utility systems are paid for by taxes,” said Jacksonville Assistant City Manager Glenn Hargett. “Really, they have to be covered by the rate payers. The systems need to operate like a business to themselves. This program has been greatly successful.”

The program is designed to assist residents that were directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, whether through job loss, reduced hours, or another similar situation. For those residents and families, up to three months of funding became available to help with utility payments.

“Jacksonville looked like a ghost town,” said Tracy Jackson, a community development specialist with Jacksonville who oversees the program. “We usually have cars on the road, but we did not. We could tell: with no cars on the road, no one is getting these services, nobody is getting paid. We tried to address that.”

A portion of the funds were also set aside to assist residents that, while struggling with financial pressures brought about by COVID-19, may have had issues paying rent. Jackson highlights that if people needed help paying their water bills, they may also need help with housing costs, and the CARES Act funding allowed Jacksonville to directly assist 33 families.

Hillsborough had a similar understanding of community need. CARES Act appropriations, which were sent to the state and then to counties, did not always make their way to municipalities. There was not a requirement for the counties to do so, and many cities were left out. Hillsborough, though, did receive some funding. In a second round of appropriations from the state, Orange County received $2.8 million—of which Hillsborough received three percent.

It was earmarked immediately for community assistance.

“We will be dividing it in thirds as we did last time,” Hillsborough Mayor Jenn Weaver told Chapelboro. com when the appropriations were announced. “A third going to housing assistance, a third going to utilities assistance and then a third going to food assistance. So really just trying to give some extra help to people in the community who are really being hurt by the economic impacts of COVID-19.”

What both Hillsborough’s and Jacksonville’s – and countless other towns’ – work highlights is the ability and desire of local governments to serve their communities, if given the resources and opportunity. By helping their citizens, these towns are also able to strengthen themselves, allowing for increased resiliency and an ability to support communities well into the future. “I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls, saying ‘How is Jacksonville doing this?’ said Jackson. “The word is getting out.”

Always an expensive undertaking, the service of water and wastewater became especially problematic with the onset of the pandemic. Photo credit: Shutterstock
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