With the coronavirus pandemic having shuttered the economy — forcing layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts — West Orange municipalities are doing what they can to alleviate financial pressure on residents’ utility bills.
In Winter Garden, city officials have enacted a program that gives residents relief from late payment consequences.
“Right now, we are sort of in triage, so we aren’t doing any cutoffs and there are no late fees — so if people don’t pay, there are no consequences,” Winter Garden City Manager Mike Bollhoefer said. “As we get through this, we’ll figure out if we’re going to do any long-term assistance.”
The relief started a few weeks ago.
“It was real simple,” Bollhoefer said. “There was two purposes for that: One, people are in financial trouble, and two, I didn’t want people coming into City Hall — with all the human contact — and meeting people and paying fees. People can make payments through the drop-off box, they can still do it online or they can mail it, but for a lot of people they pay with cash and they only want to come in. So it killed two birds with one stone, if you will.”
A few miles away in Ocoee, the city is taking the same measures, Community Relations Manager Joy Wright said.
For the most part, people have been paying either via the drop box at City Hall, by phone or online.
“We get people coming to City Hall wanting to pay their bills, and they’re most concerned about, ‘Oh, is my water going to get turned off?’” Wright said. “No, we’re not turning off anybody’s water or utilities. At the beginning of March to mid-March, people were still concerned about that.”
As Winter Garden and Ocoee continue to take their current course, the town of Oakland received an unexpected — yet welcomed — gift.
“Right now, we are sort of in triage, so we aren’t doing any cutoffs and there are no late fees — so if people don’t pay, there are no consequences. As we get through this, we’ll figure out if we’re going to do any long-term assistance.”
— Mike Bollhoefer, Winter Garden City Manager
Thanks to an anonymous donor, eligible residents will receive relief on their utility bills thanks to the newly developed COVID-19 Utility Assistance Program. The program will help offset a portion — or all — of residents’ water, wastewater and garbage bills by as much as $80.
“We had someone who indicated that they were going to donate some money — they wanted it to go toward people affected by COVID-19,” said Oakland Town Clerk Elise Hui. “So we started thinking, ‘What is the best way we can do this?’ And so we’re like, ‘Well, let’s use it to offset utility bills for those that are impacted, because people were already calling in saying, ‘I can’t pay my bill this month.’”
All together, $4,000 was donated to the town, although $1,000 of that was put aside for small businesses and the self-employed, because they don’t qualify for re-employment assistance through the state.
For residents to qualify for assistance, applicants must recently have had a break in employment (through a layoff, furlough or temporary displacement) due to COVID-19 and must be a residential utility customer of the town of Oakland. Furthermore, the property’s water/wastewater service must be through the town of Oakland, and the property served must be occupied and used by the applicant as his or her principal residence during the period for which a reduced rate is applied. Finally, the applicant must not be delinquent in any utility payment owed to the town.
If a resident fits these guidelines, he or she should complete a written application for the Utility Assistance Program and provide a copy of a notice of Re-employment Assistance filed through the state of Florida. Once done, residents can submit their information via e-mail to [email protected], or place it in the side door mail slot at Town Hall or in the town of Oakland drop box at Town Center Circle.
Hui said the program will continue to run as long as the money lasts.
“As soon as the money is expended, we’ll be putting notices up that the program is done,” Hui said. “The word that we are hoping to get out is this donor made this possible, and maybe other people are willing to donate to the same pot of money to assist. If people really want to assist local residents, there’s a good way to do it.”