Coronavirus: A clause in the NM constitution bars forgiveness of unpaid utility bills
AZTEC — A clause in the New Mexico constitution intended to prevent corruption also prevents city-owned utilities from forgiving unpaid bills following the coronavirus pandemic.
The utilities are foregoing disconnecting service due to nonpayment, however customers will have to pay their bills eventually, Bloomfield Mayor Cynthia Atencio said during a City Council meeting.
Many customers who have not been able to work due to the coronavirus pandemic are not able to pay their utility bills.
“As a city, we can’t forgive debt because of the anti-donation clause,” Atencio said.
This clause prohibits local governments from “directly or indirectly" lending or pledging its credit, or making "any donation to or in aid of any person, association, or public or private corporation.”
She said people should be reminded that they will still have to pay those bills. Cities may provide payment plans to help customers catch up on the bills after the pandemic.
“We’re not forgiving the debt,” Atencio said. “We’re just not shutting people off.”
Georgette Allen, a spokeswoman for the City of Farmington, also said that the anti-donation clause prevents city utilities, such as Farmington Electric Utility System, from forgiving the unpaid bills.
“While the Farmington Electric Utility System is not able to forgive past due charges because of the anti-donation clause, they will work with customers on a case-by-case basis and be able to recommend the best assistance plan according to individual accounts,” Allen said in an email.
She said Farmington will notify customers by using various avenues of communication about a planned timeline to resume disconnections for non-payment.
Allen said Farmington will offer payment plans that could be 12 or 18 months long depending on individual circumstances, the amount owed and the amount of time before the economy reopens. In addition, FEUS is monitoring if the state will provide additional Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program funding to help the community.
It will also assess whether the guidelines for the city’s assistance program, which is administered by ECHO, should be adjusted for those impacted by COVID-19, Allen said.
Currently FEUS has closed its customer service offices. Allen said once the current situation allows, FEUS will open its drive-through windows first and will then reopen its lobbies.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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