By Selene Raj
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Florida, reaching a record-breaking number of cases, the financial impact does as well. As a result, the City of Tamarac has decided to extend the period under which water will not be shut off due to nonpayment.
The original suspension of shutoffs and penalties for nonpayments began on March 16. It expired on June 16, but the financial services department evaluated and determined it was not yet time to return to business as usual, and have extended that suspension.
Christine Cajuste, interim director of financial services, spoke to the city commission regarding the decision to extend that suspension at their latest meeting.
She said that, legally, they cannot waive water bills or suspend them indefinitely, but that they can extend the suspension of shutoffs.
“The pandemic has not ended,” said Cajuste.
She said that during the suspension, delinquency, or nonpayments, rose about 60 to 90 percent. In total, 973 accounts have not paid bills for at least 45 days with a balance of over $75—which would typically make them eligible for suspension of service.
While they will not shut anyone’s water off for being late on payments during the suspension, they will continue to collect payments from residents.
“We’re also going to offer payment arrangements,” she said.
City Manager Michael Cernech stressed that the city wants to be able to help residents in need, without having to resort to shutoff.
“It doesn’t benefit us to be turning people’s water off for nonpayment,” said Cernech.
During the meeting, city officials also brought up the high volume of people who have reached out about unusually high water bills.
“We have been inundated with people who have higher bills than they’re used to,” said Cernech, who attributed the abnormal rise in bill amounts to people being home more than usual.
Commissioner Debra Placko said she had received a tremendous amount of calls regarding water bills and aid that while she understands the logic the city has given, that the spike is a result of more time at home, she also heard that the bills had been based on estimates for the past couple months.
Cajuste confirmed that for April, water bills were estimated either based on consumption in April 2019, or the two to three months before April 2020. Since April, however, the water bills have been based on the actual usage of water measured by each household’s meter.
“I’ve never had so many calls before about one subject,” said Placko.
Cajuste said that in addition to people doing more laundry and washing dishes, the drought cycle from late February to mid-May also drove up irrigation use, which could have led to spikes in water bills.
The extended suspension will continue through August 31.
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- Selene Raj is a writer and a Florida International University graduate. Born in Trinidad and raised in America, she completed her Master's in Mass Communications in 2020, and has been living in Coral Springs since 2004. She is passionate about the communities she lives and works in and loves reporting and sharing stories that are as complex and meaningful as the people who live in them.