Utility customers – those receiving electricity and water from Princeton Public Utilities and separate sewer service from the city – will have their billing late fees waived as a cost-savings measure prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Princeton Public Utilities suspended its billing late fees in response to COVID-19 on March 26 and communicated the policy change by email and on social media. General Manager Keith Butcher used this statement to announce the waivers:
“At Princeton Public Utilities we are continuing to monitor the effects of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on public health and the local economy.”
“We understand the impacts that this crisis is having on individual incomes as well as small business revenues. Believing that it is important for all of us to come together and help where we can, Princeton Public Utilities will suspend all billing late fees for electric and water effective April 1 until further notice.
“For those customers that are experiencing financial difficulties we ask that you please contact us as soon as possible to arrange payment plans.”
Princeton city leaders added a billing late fee waiver to their meeting agenda last Thursday. City Administrator Robert Barbian presented the item to council.
Mayor Brad Schumacher said prior to Barbian’s comments the item was a staff add-on, but the council needed to formally agree to waiving sewer billing late fees.
“I know that the PUC put out a memo, but they formally didn’t have a meeting regarding a change in policy,” Schumacher said, adding that it was important to for the council to agree and clarify the proposed policy adjustment for city staff.
“Mayor and council, I would like to take a minute and introduce this in the time of the COVID-19 crisis,” Barbian said. “This is something many utilities are doing, not only Princeton Public Utilities, but utilities across the state and the nation.”
Barbian said the city is doing what it can to help those who need assistance in waving late fees. “This is something that the council can consider doing for sewer bills,” he said. “I’m bringing this to the council for consideration and action.”
Mayor Comments On PPU Action
Schumacher commented, “Maybe the Princeton Public Utilities general manager has the ability to wave fees or whatever he wants to do, but for the city council and how we operate, we need to vote on a starting month and ending month.”
Councilor Jack Edmonds asked if it was possible for the council to approve the policy change with an ending date being contingent upon a return to normal conditions. He wondered if it was possible to put an end date on such a policy.
Schumacher said he was “OK” with whatever the council came up with, but having a consensus of city leaders was important.
“You can’t just do it on your own, on a whim,” Schumacher replied.
City Attorney Damien Toven responded by explaining if the city was to enact such as policy, it would be designed to be temporary in nature.
“It would be best if you could put on a sunset date, perhaps end of April or sometime in May,” Toven said.
Barbain said the city could enact the policy change and leave it in place as long as the COVID-19 emergency conditions enacted by Gov. Tim Walz were in place.
“Would you suggest that we copy what Gov. Walz has decided to do, underneath his declaration, so we [the city] would go as long as the governor’s declaration?” Schumacher asked. Barbian said city staff would honor the council’s wishes.
Edmonds said he didn’t have any problem with proceeding, but the council should follow Toven’s lead from a legal perspective. Councilor Jules Zimmer suggested a May 1 date. “Let’s see what happens,” Zimmer said. “We can always extend it.”
Councilor Jeff Reynolds suggested the city consider the next two sewer billing periods.
Schumacher said that would take the late fee waiver period to May 12.
Council members unanimously agreed that city staff would be waiving all sewer late fees through the May 12 billing cycle for the year. Zimmer motioned to approve the change, followed by a second from Edmonds.
Prior to approval, Councilor Jenny Gerold suggested the city still add some sort of sunset clause. “Are we just going to end this May 12?” she asked.
Schumacher deferred back to Toven for an explanation. He said the way the motion had been made, the waiver would end May 12.
“If you want to continue past that, you have to have another meeting. I don’t know if you want this back on the agenda for your first May meeting, or before May 12. That way, everybody could assess where we are,” Toven added.
Zimmer suggested revisiting late fee waiver at the council’s May 7 work session. That amended motion, and the friendly amendment were unanimously approved.
PPU Offers Explanation
The Union-Times asked Butcher for a follow-up explanation of PPU’s decision to wave electric and water late fees for its customers.
After the commission’s March 25 meeting, Butcher said he was approached by a couple of commissioners independently about waiving late fees during the pandemic.
At their direction, Butcher said he researched and drafted a policy and shared it with each of the commissioners individually.
“Each supported the policy and wanted to move forward with it immediately,” Butcher stated via email. “Since we are operating under an emergency declaration and time was of the essence, we moved quickly to make a temporary change to help the community.”
Butcher added this was the same process the PUC used when it elected to suspend electric and water disconnections until further notice.
“This was not a decision made by me alone,” Butcher added. “I shared the information with each commissioner. Every one of them supported quick and immediate action. Given our next meeting is not until April 22, and our bills are due April 12, it was felt delaying action would not help alleviate public concerns.”
Butcher said PPU’s action didn’t involve an increase in rates, but a decrease in fees to support the community in a time of crisis.
He reiterated in his email that commissioners felt immediate action was the proper thing to do.
“Historically, the general manager is been given a lot of latitude to operate the utility as needed under the guidance of the commission,” Butcher stated, adding if the commission believes that the general manager has overstepped his or her bounds, the commission has the ability to voice and address those concerns.
“I am not aware that such a concern has ever been raised by the commission,” Butcher wrote. “If this had been a controversial issue, the decision would have had to be delayed until the next meeting. Given the unanimous consensus that this was the right thing to do, I implemented the waiver.”
Other GM Comments
Butcher also stated it was important to understand PPU’s action was being taken under separate emergency declarations made by Walz and Schumacher to aid the community and relieve stresses experienced by PPU customers.
“I kept the commission informed of these actions and received their support,” Butcher added. “I did not believe a vote was necessary. I felt it was important to move forward quickly and provide assurance to the public during this time of crisis. We want our customers to rest assured they will continue to have reliable electricity and clean water regardless of their ability to pay their bill in full.”
Butcher explained that large number of utilities in Minnesota have also waived late fees as the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed.
He received a March 25 notice from the state requesting that all utilities adopt such a measure and file a response by April 3.
“We moved quickly to adopt the state’s wavier recommendation,” Butcher concluded.