With over $8.6 million in unpaid utility bills that stacked up during the pandemic, Long Beach utility customers who are behind on their payments could see shutoffs resume in August, the department said this week.

The City Council approved a shutoff moratorium along with a suspension of late fees in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic saw many people lose jobs or hours due to stay-at-home orders issued by state and local authorities.

Over three years later, thousands of residential accounts are still behind on their payments. The average amount owed for natural gas customers, which is the largest chunk of unpaid debts, is about $436.59, according to a city memo.

The large unpaid natural gas balance is also being attributed to the historic price increases seen at the beginning of 2023. The department directed about $6.2 million in funding meant for greenhouse gas reduction programs to help create a relief fund for customers who saw their bills skyrocket due to the spike in costs.

The average unpaid bills for water ($584.47), refuse services ($390.30) and sewer ($134.38), have contributed to a total outstanding debt of about $12.7 million.

Long Beach Utilities Department General Manager Chris Garner said in a memo that the department has carried millions of dollars in unpaid bills over the past three years and that has become unsustainable.

Service shutoffs could resume Aug. 15 after the department concludes months of a planned outreach effort to residential account holders behind on payments.

Garner’s department oversees water, sewer and natural gas services, while refuse services are provided by the city’s Public Works Department.

Before shutting off any services, the Utilities Department says it will launch a multi-front information campaign to let customers know that they’re behind on their payments in an effort to get them caught up on their bills or get them on a payment plan.

Over the next few months, customers behind on payments could see notices placed in their physical bills, get postcards mailed to their homes, and have automated messages call to alert them to their missed payments in addition to ads placed on social media and in local news media outlets.

“We know that a lot of people have been struggling, and they haven’t paid since 2020, so it’s going to be a process to get people back on board and getting them signed up for payment plans and other programs,” said Lauren Howland, a spokesperson for the department.

Howland said there are a good amount of people who have unpaid bills totaling between $3,000 and $4,000, but the department is willing to work with those customers to figure out a payment plan. The department is offering up to three years to repay missed payments, but some customers could negotiate longer payback periods.

“If three years is not enough, then we’re open to discussions,” Howland said.

Customers will be able to sign up for payment plans through the department’s website, but Howland said physical applications will be available at city libraries and at the department’s headquarters near Long Beach Airport. Payment plans can also be arranged through the department’s call center.

Howland said the outstanding balances haven’t affected the department’s ability to provide services so far, but they could affect its finances in the future. Howland also said that rate hikes to recoup any unpaid bills that remained unpaid would be a last-resort option.

“I think the board would look to any other option before going that route,” she said. “It’s not the folks’ fault who paid their bills that others were not able to.”

The Long Beach Utilities Commission is meeting Wednesday morning for the first of four scheduled budget hearings that could affect rates for water, sewer and gas services during the next fiscal year that starts in October.

The annual process outlines the health of the department’s reserves as well as capital improvement projects that the department plans to complete over the next year, like new underground water wells and other investments planned to make the city more resilient to drought.

A $157 million project to bring West and North Long Beach into the city’s groundwater network is one big project that the department is looking at as a potential future development.

The Long Beach Utilities call center can be reached at 562-570-5700. 

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.