Cochrane Town council approved waiving late utility bill penalties for four months, as well as approving a deferral of utility bills for residents who need it.
The three per cent late payment penalty for unpaid utility bills to the Town will be waived from Mar. 24 through July 24, 2020.
Residents who rely on COLT can also do so for free until further notice.
These initiatives are preliminary measures by the Town to handle the current coronavirus pandemic. Monday night’s (Mar. 23) town council meeting took place via video conference with councillors participating from their homes.
“Our hope here is to offer some relief to Cochrane residents, albeit short term, during this unprecedented time,” said Mayor Jeff Genung. “Council will continue to look at all available options in order to support our community.”
Residents with the ability to pay their utility bills are encouraged to do so; for those who are unable, council has created payment deferral options without penalty or loss of service. Residents who have set up pre-authorized utility payments may also opt out of the program at this time. To make changes to pre-authorized utility payments, please send requests through cochrane.ca/Utilities.
For those enrolled in the Tax Installment Payment Plan (TIPP), they may also opt out for the time being. To change TIPP options, please send requests through cochrane.ca/TIPP.
The decisions relating to utility bills and TIPP were passed unanimously after Town corporate services general manager Katherine Van Keimpema spoke to council via video conference.
Councillor Marni Fedeyko was concerned with the burden of deferred payments on out-of-work residents.
“It’s fine if you’re working and have a job, but what about the people who don’t,” she said at the meeting.
Councillor Morgan Nagel said he was worried that council would blow through their reserve on week two of the pandemic and cautioned council. The Town of Cochrane currently collects an average of $8,000 per month in utility penalties and can expect to lose about $32,000 in revenue.
Administration is also looking at possible options for property tax support. Recommendations will be brought forward to council before property tax rates and due dates are set.
Council will revisit COLT’s free-fare structure at a later date. Since Mar. 14 COLT’s ridership has dropped 65 per cent on weekdays and 76 per cent on Saturdays, Riley Welden, general manager of community and development services, told council.
COLT has limited occupancy to six riders per bus and has been thoroughly wiping down handrails and other surface areas daily to prevent cross-contamination of the coronavirus. Presently, only two buses are operating at a time and extra buses won’t be added at peak hours. The move means the town will lose an estimated $600 in revenue per week.
Councillor Susan Flowers was opposed to making COLT free to riders. She worried that people would use the service to visit other people instead of self-isolating at home.
“Where do we really need to go?” Flowers said. “I’m not sure if we will be helping or making things worse if we implement this.”
Councillor Nagel said implementing a free service sends the wrong message to residents because all town facilities are closed. The four other councillors voted in favour of offering free fares for the time being.
Drew Hyndman, interim CAO for the Town, briefed council on the Town’s swift response to the COVID-19 situation.
“We have seen regular updates on this situation from the prime minister and the premier regarding COVID-19,” Hyndman said. “I'm sure you can appreciate this is a very dynamic and ever evolving situation around the world.”
The Town has taken direction from Alberta Health Services and will implement four principal objectives including: flattening the curve, avoiding overwhelming the health care system, maintaining critical systems and keeping people working.
Both the federal and provincial governments have already announced a variety of financial support programs.
For more on the Town’s COVID-19 response and links to more information and support, check cochrane.ca/COVID-19.