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It's great to talk about electric bill concerns, but hold off on changes for now: Editorial

Posted 8/7/18

We appreciate that Middletown Borough Council is reviewing its policies on how borough residents pay their electric bills.

It is worthwhile to take a look from time to time, although there is a …

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It's great to talk about electric bill concerns, but hold off on changes for now: Editorial

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We appreciate that Middletown Borough Council is reviewing its policies on how borough residents pay their electric bills.

It is worthwhile to take a look from time to time, although there is a specific reason for this discussion. Council Vice President Dawn Knull said she wants to give a break to borough residents being hammered by rising water and sewer bills. An 11.5 percent surcharge was added to the bills of Middletown customers by Suez in April, and more increases are expected in coming years.

Council discussed several issues at its July 17 meeting. Are late fees too high? Is there a better time frame on which residents could pay their bills, to make it easier on them? Will the upcoming change allowing residents to use credit cards for electric bills facilitate more on-time payments? These are worthy questions to ask.

It’s impossible to have everyone pay their bills on time. Some people simply don’t have enough money. Those who don’t pay on time eventually accrue late fee charges, a percentage applied to the current past due amount. As with any such bill, accumulating late fees make it that much harder for the customer to catch up.

One possibility is for the borough to reduce the late fee charge from 10 percent to 5 percent. Maybe 5 percent is a fairer amount.

The problem is that the borough has budgeted for a certain amount of late fee revenue. Cutting the late fee in half would cost the borough about $90,000 in annual revenue, Finance Director Kevin Zartman said, based on the borough getting about $180,000 in late fees over a year.

Is the borough willing to give up that money in the name of being “more fair” to residents?

It’s also possible to add a week into the billing cycle before a bill becomes late, giving residents 21 days to pay instead of 14. Depending on when a resident receives their paycheck, this might help give them more wiggle room.

While it might seem that giving people an option of using a credit card would increase payments, Zartman cautioned that many of the people who have trouble paying don’t have credit cards to begin with. They are using money orders.

Middletown is in the position of having these discussions because it is among 35 boroughs in Pennsylvania that provides electricity to their residents and businesses. Sometime this fall, these boroughs will be looking at coming up with more consistent policies and procedures regarding billing practices, borough Manager Ken Klinepeter told council.

We think the borough should wait until this discussion takes place before making any major policy changes. However, Knull sees urgency in getting something done now. She wants to decrease the late fee to 5 percent and give residents 21 days to pay instead of 14.

“You’ve got to look at these residents first and nobody is. You’re looking at the bottom line of $90,000 that you are losing — what about the residents who are posting online that they can’t afford their bills?’’

We appreciate the passion Knull is showing on this issue. But we urge the council to wait until the 35 boroughs meet, in hopes of some best practices coming to light.

Council again will discuss the subject of electric billing policies and procedures during its Aug. 21 work session.

If the council decides to take action now, before the 35 boroughs get together, we suggest we do what Mayor James H. Curry III put forth. He proposed giving residents the added week to pay their bill before it becomes late, but to keep the late fee at 10 percent until any impact of the credit card change is seen.

If you have strong feelings about this issue and ways to address it, contact a council member. Their contact information is listed at the bottom. If you have time, please attend the council meeting on Aug. 8 or Aug. 21 and add your thoughts about this matter. Expressing your views to your elected officials in a respectful way is the foundation to our democracy.

Whatever the outcome, these are the types of issues our council should keep an eye on. We appreciate their diligence.

Middletown officials

Mayor James H. Curry III: 463 N. Union St. Middletown, PA 17057. 610-533-4751. jameshcurryiii@gmail.com.

Council President Damon Suglia: 717-979-9457, dsuglia@middletownborough.com.

Council Vice President Dawn Knull: 717-497-1302, dmknull73@gmail.com.

Angela Lloyd: 717-712-6781, alloyd@middletownborough.com.

Jenny Miller: 717-574-6716, jmiller@middletownborough.com.

Ian Reddinger: 717-350-5555.

Robert Reid: 717-944-4764, raiderblue17@aol.com.

Mike Woodworth: 717-919-4805, mwoodworth@middletownborough.com.