LUMBERTON — Checks that will provide additional coronavirus relief aid, including assistance to customers with outstanding utility bills, are in the mail to local municipalities.
The county sent out checks Thursday that amounted to less than 25% of the $2,535,163 in CARES Act funding received by Robeson County government. The county will keep the rest of the money.
The money sent to the municipalities is meant as reimbursement for COVID-19 related expenses such as medical costs incurred by public hospitals or clinics, buying personal protective equipment and payroll expenses for public safety or health employees, among others, said Tammy Freeman, Robeson County Board of Commissioners clerk.
The towns of Rowland, Orrum, Lumber Bridge and McDonald opted out of accepting the funding assistance, meaning the county will keep that money, County Manager Kellie Blue said Friday.
Allocations to the municipalities were made by dividing the population of each municipality by the county’s total population, Blue said.
The county could have asked for a reimbursement plan before releasing funding, but because of the financial toll taken on some towns, it chose not to do so, she said.
“We fully understand that the current coronavirus crisis has resulted in unprecedented disruptions in the services the county’s municipalities perform as well as impact their operating budgets,” Blue said.
The money distributed by the county also includes an allocation to each municipality that can in turn be given to a nonprofit selected by each municipality that would assist utility customers with paying outstanding bills incurred during the pandemic.
Rowland did not have many customers who had not paid their utility bills, and instead plans to work with customers on an individual basis to set up plans for payment, said David Townsend, town clerk.
The town of Fairmont has $29,000 in outstanding utility bills, with 129 customers on payment plans, said Finance Director and Clerk Jenny Larson.
“We did start cutting off this month,” Larson said.
Although she is glad to see money to help utility customers, many guidelines for spending the money will not benefit the town.
“It’s like the money was originally designed for counties, not municipalities,” Larson said.
The money is welcomed by the City of Lumberton, which suffered because of Gov. Roy Cooper’s order to cease collection of unpaid utility bills because of the pandemic, City Manager Wayne Horne said.
About 54% of Lumberton City Utility customers had not paid bills from March to July, with a delinquent balance of a little more than $1.2 million and $419,722 in late fees.
There were 238 customers placed on payment plans after the third and final payment notice was sent out Aug. 4, which gave the customers 17 days to pay the balance, enter a payment plan or face cutoffs, he said. Of those customers, 192 are still paying and 26 have paid in full.
“The city began disconnecting for nonpayment on Aug. 24. Reconnect fees and late penalties are being waived on these accounts,” he said.
Since payment plans were put in place, the city is beginning to recover, Horne said.
“Since the letters were sent and customers have responded and paid their account in full or established payment plans the total delinquent balance has been reduced to $334,626, representing 854 customers,” he said.
The city is working to contact nonprofits that can help utility customers continue to pay their bills, the city manager said.
Red Springs is also recovering from the financial toll of unpaid utility bills, about $800,000 as of the end of August, Town Manager David Ashburn said. More than 150 customers are on payment plans.
“We’re getting more money in, yes,” Ashburn said. “So, we’re moving in a positive direction.”
The town automatically put people on payment plans, if they had outstanding payments, he said.
Red Springs and Lumberton are members of ElectriCities, and provide residents with electricity through Duke Energy. If customers do not pay, the municipalities are responsible for paying the remaining balances.
“They don’t cut us any slack,” Ashburn said of Duke Energy.
The Town of St. Pauls has 23 residents on payment plans, with an outstanding balance of $4,867.98, said interim Town Administrator Debra McNeill. The town will use the money from the county to recoup some of the expenses incurred because of COVID-19.
The Town of Pembroke began offering payment plans to its residents in September, Town Manager Tyler Thomas said. Balances accrued before or after the governor’s order are not affected and accounts can be disconnected with or without a payment plan in place.
There are currently 27 payment plans in place, Thomas said. The value of the outstanding payments is $52,000.
The following is a list of municipalities and their allocations from the county: Fairmont, $87,193.59; Lumberton, $705,341.49; Marietta, $5,729.96; Maxton, $76,421.27; Parkton, $14,275.78; Pembroke, $97,343.81; Proctorville, $3,830.89; Raynham, $2,357.47; Red Springs, $112,241.70; Rennert, $12,540.42; and St. Pauls, $66,631.23.