The Chehalis City Council voted Monday to use Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) created by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to pay for the overdue utility balances of 21 Chehalis landlords who were left with utility bills that were unpaid by their tenants during Gov. Jay Inslee's COVID-19 state of emergency proclamations.
As of April 4, there were 21 closed tenant accounts in Chehalis with unpaid utility bills that landlords were left with. City policy states that landlords are responsible for whatever utility bills their tenants leave unpaid when moving out. In all, the council voted to pay off $21,158 worth of unpaid bills.
Inslee issued numerous emergency orders at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. They included a proclamation for ratepayer assistance and preservation of essential services that prohibited the termination of most utilities due to non-payment in an attempt to aid those economically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
When this ratepayer moratorium ended on Sept. 30, 2021, unpaid utility bills became subject to shut-offs and late payment fees in January.
To assist in the burden that unpaid utility bills caused the city’s utility customers, Chehalis provides a payment plan option over 18 months through June 2023 for balances accrued during the COVID-19 pandemic. For utility customers who are on the payment plan and make the planned payments, there are no shut-offs or late fees on the balances owed.
Yet some tenants in Chehalis did not take advantage of the payment plan and left their landlords with the bill, leading to the council’s decision to pay the remaining, non-payment-plan balances of the affected landlords with SLFRF funds, totaling $21,158.
“This policy has been prepared for your consideration in response to comments made when the payment plan policy for utility customers was put into place back in the second half of 2021,” City Manager Jill Anderson told the council when introducing the measure. “So at that time, the city council asked for a proposal — a plan — to be able to use ARPA monies to help landlords who had been left sort of holding the bag after the extended proclamations preventing late fees on utility bills, evictions, et cetera.”
Anderson said the policy requires the affected landowners to complete an application and sign an affidavit saying they were impacted negatively by COVID-19.
“(This is) consistent with the laws that we believe apply to a program of this type and to protect the city from any kind of audit finding related to the use of this money because, while the money was given out very generously, the reporting of this money is quite extensive and the follow-up(s) on federal audit requirements are quite intense,” Anderson said.
Mayor Tony Ketchum expressed a tired acceptance of the need to use the SLFRF funds to help out the landlords, especially given the federal assistance that was available to renters throughout the pandemic.
“The federal government said people that are renting, people that have utilities, they can apply for this money — and I think it's a pretty simple process — but then the laws never said once you receive this money, you have to give it to the landlord. They got to keep it,” Ketchum said. “It’s sad to see that now even the landlords have to go through a silly three-page, four-page process just to recoup money, which the federal government was giving them in the first place, which never made it to them. So it's a sad, sad state of affairs.”
The lowest balance among the 21 overdue accounts available for assistance is $24.27, the highest balance is $5,151.87 and the average balance is $1,055.18.