Harrisonburg won’t cut off water for nonpayment during the COVID-19 pandemic local emergency, and the Harrisonburg Electric Commission will also not be disconnecting customers.
City Attorney Chris Brown told City Council about the utility plans on Tuesday.
Brown also got support from council to prepare an ordinance that would waive the late fee of 10% of a customer’s total water and sewer bill during the emergency period.
Brian O'Dell, the general manager for HEC, said in a Wednesday afternoon interview the local utility decided on March 13 to stop immediately stop disconnections for nonpayment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We are encouraging our customers to call and let us know they're in a situation financially, so if it's possible to make some arrangements, just [to] let us know their situation," O'Dell said. "We understand it's going to take some time before it gets sorted out."
On March 16, the State Corporation Commission directed utilities to cease cutoffs, but HEC is not overseen by the commission, according to Brown.
City Manager Eric Campbell said the city was entering “uncharted waters” financially in regards to city budgets and revenue impacted by the situation.
In other business, City Council approved the $1.45 million purchase of 151.51 acres in Rockingham County for a water line extension where an obstacle was discovered in the original path.
The city plans to sell the property once the line is underground, and officials expect to recoup the cost of the purchase.
“I don’t think this money is going away,” said Mike Collins, director of public works.
The property is owned by Gerry Saufley. According to city documents, a second easement on the property could not be acquired after a sinkhole was found in the original route of the line.
The purchase of the property allows the public utilities department to change the route of the pipeline originally slated to run through the property.
The anticipated increase in cost to the project if continued on the original plan is calculated between $65,000 and $215,000, according to city documents. Risk to the line would remain from the sinkhole.
According to city documents, the purchase would save the city between roughly $253,000 and $453,000, along with a potential further $50,000.
After the work is completed in late summer or early fall, Collins said, the property could be put back on the market. He said he expected the line to last for 150 to 200 years as workers use new methods and equipment.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, City Council heard from Harrisonburg City Public Schools Superintendent Michael Richards about the upcoming school budget. No vote was taken Tuesday, as the division’s budget is rolled into the full budget proposal that Campbell will present to council in the coming months.
Richards said Harrisonburg’s enrollment is expected to continue to increase to nearly 7,000 students between kindergarten and grade 12 by 2025 — a roughly 11% increase from the approximately 6,200 student enrolled in 2020.
The data is sourced from the University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, and Richards said the school system has found the group’s projections reliable in the past.
The budget also includes a raise of 7.5% for food service staff and 3% raise for other employees, according to Richards’ presentation, to keep competitive pay rates compared to other public and private sector employers.
Over $2.5 million is also allocated for the creation of nearly 38 new full-time positions across a dozen schools and services, with many in special education, bilingual programming and mental health positions.
Richards said many of the positions are required by the population at Harrisonburg High School.
He said “theoretically” the positions created at the high school, not necessarily the employees, would be moved to the new high school when it opens.
Pay for substitute teachers would also increase by $5 a day.
“We are struggling to find subs,” Richards said.
In total, the demand from local funding would increase 4%, according to Richards, as the enrollment increases over the next year by 3%.
“It is very normal for that number to be a little bit more than the enrollment growth,” Richards said.
The school budget projects an increase in demand of local funding between 3.66% and 5.12%, according to Richards’ presentation.
In other news, council also passed an ordinance to ratify the city manager’s declaration of a local emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ordinance allows the streamlining of various processes, including the procurement of goods, such as medical supplies, according to Brown.
The acceptance of the motion follows the emergency declaration from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on March 12 and the city’s own declaration of emergency on March 15.
Council also approved a measure to allow council members to take part in meetings remotely with technology in the case of personal matters, emergencies or medical issues.
Brown said council members would have to present why they will be absent to the rest of council, and remote participation would require approval from the rest of council.
During public comment, several members of the the Shenandoah Mutual Fund, a support group established to help people during the COVID-19 pandemic, spoke requesting things such as a 24/7 homeless shelter, a ceasing of evictions, a fund for laid-off service workers and a rent freeze.
Nearly a dozen people called in, with many echoing similar points and sentiments.
Brown said the city government does not have the power to instill a rent freeze or moratorium for evictions or foreclosures due to the Dillon rule, which stipulates that local governments have only the powers explicitly granted to them by the state government.
He also said evictions are carried out by the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office.
Council opened a phone line for members of the public to call in to speak and the meeting was streamed on the city’s website, Facebook page and broadcast on television Channel 3 as part of efforts to include the public in the meeting despite social-distancing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.