Belhaven works to correct past due utility balances

Published 6:12 pm Monday, March 21, 2016

BELHAVEN — The Town of Belhaven is making headway on its delinquent utility bills, according to Town Manager Woody Jarvis.

In February, the State Auditor’s Office released it findings in the town’s finances, including delinquent utility accounts, lack of a travel policy and failure to properly record customer receivables.

According to the audit, of the 1,294 active accounts in Belhaven, 235 of those were past due and still receiving services, included 136 accounts past due by more than 90 days and included 77 outstanding accounts with balances greater than $1,000.

“In violation of town policy, the former Town Manager (Guinn Leverett) did not cut off utilities for 629 delinquent accounts ($429, 888),” the audit stated. “If the Town Manager does not follow the cut-off policy, delinquent balances will continue to increase, and the Town’s utility fund may experience cash shortages and not be able to pay its obligations.”

Jarvis said since the audit’s release Feb. 4, the town has worked to amend the situation, collecting about 62.5 percent of the delinquent account balances to date.

He said it is now required that the past due account holders pay their current bill, as well as a portion of the delinquent balance, to keep receiving services.

“We have urged anybody that had a delinquent account to come in and talk about it. There has been an immense amount of public contact,” Jarvis said. “These accounts did not get delinquent and large overnight, and a lot of them are not capable of being satisfied overnight.”

The state’s Local Government Commission, which oversees municipalities to ensure they are operating correctly, paid Belhaven a visit about two weeks ago to check in on its progress, according to Jarvis.

Although the town has yet to receive a letter giving full feedback details, Jarvis said he thinks the audit officials were pleased overall with the progress made.

In the meantime, he said he is trying to work with utility customers as much as he can, and there is a system in place that uses tax refund money and lottery winnings to go toward the delinquent balances. The town also formed a Utility Hardship Committee in November that meets once a week.

“That has been going on intensely and the money has been coming in. It’s not all in,” Jarvis said. “It has not come without aches and pains. … We’re really using every tool in the shed.”

Amending the outstanding balances has led to residents having services cut off, and while this is not the desirable outcome, Jarvis said it has to be done in some cases.

“We don’t have a town-wide blackout, and it is a relatively small number,” he said. “There’s a difference between someone who doesn’t want to and someone who can’t (pay).”

“We routinely cut some folks off to get their attention if we’re not getting it in other ways,” Jarvis said. “We’ve had a lot of help from social services. We’ve had a whole lot of help from churches.”

Another portion of the audit reported on inactive accounts with outstanding balances, of which 394 were more than 60 days past due and represented 63 percent of the receivable balance for the town.

Jarvis said the audit firm hired by the town is working on correcting the record of the receivable balance, showing a “net receivable amount” that accommodates for and writes off inactive accounts that are not likely to be paid. The February audit reported that former Finance Director Steve Noble did not record the net receivables correctly.

The State Auditor’s Office has also expressed concern as to why the town-hired audit firm did not address these problems during its own annual audits, Jarvis said.

“(The firm) agreed to actually go back and review that portion of the audit from last year,” he said. “I’m really pleased with what we’re doing.”

“It’s taken a lot of my time, and it’s taken a lot of the finance officer’s time, but it’s time well spent,” Jarvis said.