Like local governments across the country, the Purcell City Council grappled Tuesday with the grim reality of COVID-19.
The question raised during a special council meeting at City Hall was should the city cut utilities of residents forced out of work as the state struggles to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections.
It is a prickly problem and a slippery slope for the city which relies heavily on utility revenue to pay for salaries and services.
“Utility bills,” said councilmember Danny Jacobs. “drives our budget.”
Jacobs said Purcell’s “quiet givers” will cover those delinquent bills for fellow citizens if they are asked.
But councilmember Jay Tate asked how do you ask a parent to choose between paying the electric bill or feeding their family when they have been laid off.
“Whether they lose their job before the bill was due or after doesn’t matter,” he said.
City manager Dale Bunn pointed out that residents forced out of work by COVID-19 restrictions will receive unemployment benefits and that the one-week waiting period to start those benefits has been waived along with work search requirements.
Bunn also pointed out there have been no utility cutoffs since Monday.
Residents unable to pay their utility bill should contact City Hall and request a deferral, Bunn said. Deferrals are granted on a case-by-case basis and require a payment plan. After 30 days, staff reassesses the deferral.
Victor Lohn, Purcell’s finance manager, is looking at waiving the fee charged for paying utilities online, Bunn said. Tate’s motion to implement a 60-day moratorium on utility cutoffs died for lack of a second.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to help residents in need of assistance.
Earlier Tuesday Mayor Ted Cox issued a proclamation stating the existence of a civil emergency due to COVID-19.
However, Gov. Kevin Stitt on Tuesday imposed stricter rules which closed non-essential businesses in counties with cases of coronavirus. McClain County has one case.
Still the proclamation wasn’t without its supporters.
Bunn pointed out that council support for it could possibly prove valuable for the city getting federal money.
“We need to bless it,” Jacobs agreed before the council voted unanimously in favor of the proclamation.