The city of Bend is moving to shift back toward more business as usual in collecting fines and fees. Is that the right move with the COVID economy still sputtering?
Imagine losing your job, struggling to get unemployment benefits and now the city sends you a notice that your water bill is delinquent. City staff are sensitive to people in that predicament. They are trying to balance concern for those people and the city’s fiscal responsibilities. It is not easy. It’s up to Bend city councilors to ensure the policies stay reasonable.
One area the city is changing is rent relief. The city of Bend has tenants, such as those in properties attached to the parking garage downtown and some at the airport. It had been allowing rent deferrals to those that inquired about it since April. No tenants took advantage and the city doesn’t have outstanding balances owed to it. We would hope that the city will consider allowing rent relief if the pandemic continues and tenants can’t pay.
In March, the city suspended utility shut offs and ceased late fees. That prevented 1,900 customers from having their utilities shut off. The city did, though, change that policy slightly in July. It is still not shutting people off. It did begin sending delinquent notices to customers. That seems to have been effective at encouraging people to pay down their amount owed. The city says it is committed to giving customers at least two months warning before it resumes shut offs and late fees. As of the end of August, there was still some money left in the city’s COIVD-19 utility relief program to help customers who can’t pay — about $16,000.
Bend Municipal Court is also taking action on things it has let slide because of the pandemic. The city did make some changes, such as offering an online option for traffic school, which it did not have in the past. But some 1,200 people have not replied to citations or orders from the court since March, according to a city report.
The court’s plan was to send out reminder letters, giving people 30 days to respond. The letters were supposed to go out this week. People just have to respond. For instance, they don’t have to pay up every penny owed. They just have to get in touch. If they don’t, the court may suspend driver’s licenses or turn debt over to collections.
The city’s right to make adjustments to its COVID-19 policies. But the pandemic is not over. Bend city councilors need to insist on updates to ensure the city’s policies strike an appropriate balance.