Utilities working to help customers who can't pay bills

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FARMINGTON — Central Consolidated School District officials don't want the government shutdown to drag on, but they are making plans to deal with the fallout if that happens.

The shutdown will not force public schools to close their doors. The U.S. Department of Education is funded through September.

However, one program impacting more than 30 million students nationwide will run out of funding by March.

CCSD director of finance Kyle Archibeque said the national school lunch program is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rather than the Department of Education.

Archibeque said CCSD spends about $162,000 monthly to provide meals for students. That amount is then reimbursed to the district by the USDA.

If the government does not reopen by the end of March, those reimbursements will stop, Archibeque said.

“Obviously, nobody is expecting that, but you never know,” Archibeque said.

He said the district will continue providing meals for the students, though it may have to tap into other funds if the government shutdown continues into March. That would mean less money would be available to pay for unforeseen expenses.

The CCSD school board discussed plans for meeting the needs during its Tuesday meeting in Kirtland. All schools in the area will face the same challenges, but CCSD is expected to see the most impact because of its enrollment.

CCSD has the largest percentage of students in San Juan County that are eligible for free or reduced lunch, according to state data available from the New Mexico Department of Health. The Department of Health compiles a the data for its Health Indicator Report of Public Education.

According to the data, about 80 percent of CCSD students are eligible for free or reduced price meals through the National School Lunch Program. About 77 percent of Bloomfield Municipal School District students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Approximately 61 percent of Aztec Municipal School District students and 55 percent of Farmington Municipal School District students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Utilities create plans for federal workers who can't pay bills

Furloughed federal employees still have to pay bills and buy necessities, but many companies are stepping up to assist people who are going without pay during the government shutdown.

The New Mexico Gas Company is asking federal employees who are working without pay or who are being furloughed to call the customer service line at 1-888-665-2726 to make other payment arrangements.

Spokesman Tim Korte said the unpaid federal employees will need to visit a New Mexico Gas Company office to show proof of employment. He said that can come in the form of a business card, a government ID or a badge. While the gas company is making arrangements to delay payments with federal employees, Korte said it is not making the same arrangements for federal government contractors who are not be getting paid.

Korte said the New Mexico Gas Company will not disconnect the residential accounts of federal employees for nonpayment. The protections are in place through March 15. Korte said the New Mexico Gas Company will either extend or re-evaluate the protections if the government remains shut down after March 15.

“We don’t want to punish those who are in this situation through no fault of their own,” he said.

The Farmington Electric Utility System already has worked with seven customers who are not receiving federal government pay due to the shutdown. Electric utility director Hank Adair said the employees are eligible for a 30-day delinquency exception. That means they will not face penalties or disconnection if they file paperwork and are unable to pay their bill.

The customers will still have to pay their bill when they go back to work, but the time frame is extended for those customers, Adair said.

The utility is asking for copies of furlough letters, but customer service manager Nicki Parks said it also will work with federal employees who do not have furlough letters and with contractors who have been impacted by the shutdown.

"We'll work with anybody who is affected negatively by this," she said.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority also is working with impacted federal employees who may not be able to pay electric, water, wastewater and natural gas bills. The employees need to show a payroll check stub or government identification to customer service representatives.

“Once the shutdown is ended, customers will need to contact us to make some type of arrangement to catch their bills up,” deputy general manager Rex Kontz said in a press release. “You will still receive computer-generated disconnect notices during this time. Once you contact us, these can be disregarded.”

NTUA can be contacted at 928-729-5721.

CCSD superintendent: Shutdown can cause emotional impact

The shutdown has caused some unpaid federal employees to ask family members for help. CCSD Board Member Christina Aspaas said she has had to help her furloughed cousin pay for necessities like food and gas.

Those money challenges can have an impact on the well-being of students, according to CCSD Superintendent Terri Benn.

“The students don’t understand what the adults are facing,” Benn said.

She said the children do understand their parents are stressed and struggling to pay for necessities. She said the district is trying to help families however it can.

“We’ll just take it day by day and see what transpires,” Benn said.

Shutdown closes tourist attractions

The shutdown has closed both Aztec Ruins National Monument and Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Farmington Convention and Visitors Bureau assistant director Ingrid Gilbert said the local area has been fortunate that the shutdown occurred during the winter when tourism typically is down.

The bureau has been able to refer tourists who have come to the region to visit those park service sites to similar attractions. For example, people wanting to see Chaco Culture National Historical Park or Aztec Ruins National Monument have been referred to the Salmon Ruins Museum and tours of Dinétah defensive sites.

“We don’t want to see those closures halt people from coming here,” Gilbert said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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