Paying the bills -- down to the penny

Friday, October 24, 2008

What I saw in the utility office lobby on Water Street is an American tragedy.

A woman was quietly paying her bill to the Lewisburg Water and Wastewater Department in pennies.

She was breaking them open from what appeared to be hand-rolled paper wraps, but maybe they were put together at a bank or one of those machines at the grocery.

When asked if she'd broken into her piggy bank, the woman confirmed what was obvious. She's barely afloat, but at least enough to pay something on her water bill.

What Happened? The price of gasoline went up so much that she'd been paying much more on transportation and a household utility was being put on the installment plan.

To earn a paycheck, she must drive to work. To get there, she must buy gasoline. The margin between paycheck and bills paid is now shorter than hand-to-mouth.

Counting coins and folding money at the end of the day was a self-preservation technique for me when I was single and free-lancing from a rooming house with a part-time job in the late 1970s. The old men at breakfast in Coffey's Store at Lynchburg, Va., said I'd look back on those days and see them as the best time of my life. Announcing drag races on weekends was great, but only seasonal, and I ate every bit of my toast, butter, jelly, eggs and bacon since the first meal of the day is the most important.

A lot of people keep a jar of pennies, but how frequently are those jars the financial safety net for a household?

The city utility customer is an honest, hard-working woman. That's my character judgment. She replied with little, if any, hesitation to a newsman's questions. She's gone to other people she must pay. Apparently, they know that the right thing to do is to help her.

Nearly a week earlier, Chapel Hill's Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to increase the fee charged to restore water service that's been cut off for non-payment of bills. The fee is similar to what's charged by nearby utilities. The city administrator says he's noticed an increase in the number of cut-offs and requests for reconnection. He attributes it to the economy.

Nobody's surprised.

Now, after 16 years without a rate hike, Marshall County Board of Public Utilities is considering a rate hike. The utility has one product -- water, and a board member rightly grumbles about people who prefer to drink bottled water.

There's much more to it than meets the eye, or what is reflected here, but by this time next year, MCBPU may be getting pennies.

Meanwhile, there's been a suggestion at City Hall to establish a program for the use of discretionary money budgeted for members of the Council so it can be spent to help residents like the woman who's paying her water bill with pennies.

I'd like to hear more about that. Wouldn't you?