As has been the trend among many local municipalities, the Ocoee City Commission spent time during its Tuesday, June 2, meeting discussing COVID-19 and its effects on the city.
To start off the meeting, Rebecca Roberts, the city’s finance director, went over utility billing fees with the commission.
Before COVID-19 arrived, the city charged $10 late fees per month, suspended accounts that were two months in arrears and terminated accounts that were three months in arrears.
However, after the effects of the pandemic, the city began to waive late fees, which has cost the city, Roberts said.
“In May, we waived about $18,000 in late fees, so that’s revenue we did not collect,” Roberts said. “No accounts have been suspended or terminated since March, so we have about 16,000 total accounts — 515 accounts are in arrears, 94 of those are irrigation-only accounts. The amount in arrears is about $116,452, and $25,000 of the arrears is irrigation only.”
Along with the money lost for late fees, the city also has been absorbing the small convenience fees usually paid by residents when paying their utility fee with credit card. Altogether, the convenience fees have built up to $24,000.
During the meeting, commissioners began discussing a timeframe for reinstating late fees, convenience fees and account suspensions and terminations. The original recommendation to the commission was to reinstate the late fees in the June bills, while beginning suspensions in July for accounts that were two months or more in arrears.
“For those people who are behind … if the payment plan is met and they remain current, those fees can be credited back, but we would like to start reinstating them,” Roberts said. “The objective of the fee is to encourage people to pay timely and to not let their utility bills go behind.”
If residents establish a plan and follow it, there would be no suspensions or terminations made, Roberts said. Staff also suggested extending repayment timelines.
“So (don’t) worry if you’re behind in your bill and you’ve just gotten back to work — just come talk with us and we’ll put you on a payment plan,” Roberts said. “The payment plan generally would include making your monthly payment that is due, plus a portion of your amount that is in arrears. We currently offer six months to repay your amounts that are in arrears — we would like to extend that to nine months.”
Finally, staff suggested reinstating convenience fees immediately.
The immediate reaction to the requests was positive, with Commissioner George Oliver standing behind the recommendation and Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen supporting a three-month extension. Though Wilsen also raised concerns about June being a month too early.
“All we’re doing is adding misery on top of misery, because it’s a $10 fee,” Wilsen said. “I personally would like to see it all start in July. I know we are going to lose some money, but I think we have to be considerate to our residents.”
By the time the discussion ended, Wilsen motioned the plan be moved forward with the two changes — starting late fees in July and extending payment plans to nine months. The motion carried unanimously.
COMMISSION TO OPEN MEETINGS TO PUBLIC
The commission also made a decision on when it would reopen its in-person meetings to the public.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order 20-69 — which relaxed in-person quorum requirements and allowed for teleconferencing for local government meetings — expires July 7.
Although some local governments are electing to continue with the teleconferences, others are opening to a limited audience, Assistant City Manager Craig Shadrix said.
“We would be able to contain 20 members of the public in here — that’s based on the fire marshal’s recommendations if we were to open it back up,” Shadrix said.
The commission decided in a 3-2 vote to open meetings to the public beginning July 21, with commissioners George Oliver and Brinson dissenting.