A sign welcoming people to the City of Soldotna stands near the intersection of the Sterling Highway and Kenai River on May 1, 2019, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

A sign welcoming people to the City of Soldotna stands near the intersection of the Sterling Highway and Kenai River on May 1, 2019, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna ends disaster declaration, utility penalty suspension

As part of the declaration, the city temporarily suspended the accrual of all penalties on past due balances and water shutoffs.

Soldotna residents who took advantage of the city’s suspension of utility shutoffs and penalty accrual for past-due bills will have 60 days to enter into a repayment agreement with the city following the repeal of the city’s disaster declaration by the Soldotna City Council.

The council approved during their Wednesday night meeting both the repeal of Soldotna’s COVID-19 disaster declaration and the creation of a 60-day grace period for city utility customers who were provided assistance under that declaration to enter into a payment plan with the city. The declaration was first issued by Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen on March 19, 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and has since been extended five times by the council. Prior to Wednesday, the declaration was set to expire on June 30.

In introducing the legislation, Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney cited similar action taken by municipalities around the state and his belief that it is time for the city to return to “some semblance of normalcy.”

“I think we’ve come to the time — like most communities here in the state and including the state — that it’s time to end the declaration,” Whitney said during the council’s Wednesday meeting. “Things are starting to at least get some semblance of normal life going on so I think it’s time for this to go away.”

Multiple council members asked how repeal of the declaration would impact how Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen is able to respond to the pandemic. Queen said that was not something she was concerned about. Among other things, the disaster declaration afforded city administration more flexibility in how they were able to respond to the pandemic. The executive powers granted to Queen under the declaration go away with the repeal of the declaration, but Queen said Wednesday that those powers were used “infrequently” and mostly at the onset of the pandemic.

“There has not been a need, really for many months, for me to act quicker than within the normal processes of the council,” Queen said. “So yes … it would terminate and that’s not a matter that concerns me greatly at this point.”

With the repeal of the disaster declaration also comes the end of Soldotna’s moratorium on penalty accrual on past-due water and sewer balances and water shutoffs, which was outlined in the declaration. As part of the declaration, the city temporarily suspended the accrual of all penalties on past-due balances and water shutoffs due to lack of payment by customers.

A May 17 memo from Soldotna Finance Director Melanie Imholte to the council said that of the city’s approximate 1,500 utility customers, about 26 accounts were more than three months past due. Queen said during the council’s Wednesday meeting that the number of delinquent accounts is consistent with what the city experiences during non-COVID times, and that the city reached out to customers to make them aware of the program as it was offered.

Repayment agreements established during the 60-day grace period can be set for up to two years. Penalties on past-due balances will not accrue during the repayment period as long as customers stay current with ongoing water and sewer charges and their repayment of past-due amounts.

Customers who do not enter into an agreement with Soldotna in the next two months or who breach their repayment agreement will be subject to penalties and utility shutoff.

The suspension was one of three ways the city aimed to offer utility relief to Soldotna residents during the pandemic. Soldotna also offered a utility hardship program that allowed customers who certified that they had been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic to receive relief from their water and sewer bill for the months of October through December of 2020. Imholte said Thursday that 131 customers took advantage of that program.

Additionally, the City of Soldotna applied a 50% discount to the billing rates for residential and commercial customers in May and June of 2020.

The enactment of a grace period with the repeal of the disaster declaration is similar to action taken by the Kenai City Council, which also approved a 60-day window for city utility customers to enter into a payment plan following the expiration of Kenai’s disaster declaration. Kenai’s declaration was extended to June 30 by the Kenai City Council during their May 19 meeting.

The council voted 5-1 in favor of repealing the declaration, with Soldotna Vice Mayor Lisa Parker voting in opposition. The initiation of the 60-day grace period for utility customers was unanimously approved by the council.

The council’s full Wednesday meeting can be viewed on the city’s website at soldotna.org.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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