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Residential theft of water drops off in Manteca

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POSTED February 18, 2013 1:21 a.m.

Water theft and people tempting to stiff the city for non-payment of municipal utility bills is continuing in Manteca but at a level significantly lower than in 2008 during the peak of the foreclosure crisis.

Manteca municipal crews locked off 28 delinquent residential accounts in January for unauthorized restoration of service. That’s after issuing 403 shut-off notices and then turning off service to 68 customers who failed to bring accounts current.

In 2007, the city would issue 1,000 final notices to cut off water service for non-payment of municipal utility bills. Of those, 200 actually ended up with service turned off.

By 2008 when the housing market collapse started in earnest, there were 1,800 final notices mailed each month. City workers ended up turning water service off to 400 homes in any given month.

Water shut-offs and theft have been used as barometer of the health of the local economy. The downward trend started in 2011. The improving economy coupled with a more aggressive municipal stance toward delinquent accounts has reduced water account losses by $50,500 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012 compared to two years prior when losses peaked at $261,954.

Prior to 2011, uncollected municipal utility account debt had grown for four consecutive years.

The City Council in June wrote off $211,400 in debt associated with 690 utility accounts for water, sewer, and solid waste. In many of the cases, renters or homeowners in foreclosure stop paying their bills for the last two months. That represents an unpaid debt of $306 per account. The losses are absorbed by other ratepayers.

The city four years ago instituted a policy requiring a renter’s agreement when water service is opened. That means to open a service, you must have a copy of the rental agreement. That makes it harder to simply shift the account into someone else’s name after it goes delinquent for several months unless a new rental agreement has been signed.

A number of those who were delinquent and had received final notices for water cutoffs would send someone else living in the household to say they were the new tenants and that they knew nothing about an outstanding water bill.

In most cases, the city had no way of verifying the validity of the story.

Oftentimes people who have stopped paying mortgage payments will - a month or so before they are sure they have to vacate the property - will stop paying for municipal utilities as well.

The city by instituting cutbacks in compensation for workers employed by municipal utility operations such as sewer, water and garbage has been able to absorb the losses without triggering rate hikes. Rates have been unchanged for all three services now for four years.

City officials had predicted without tightening up the rules on rentals plus sending out late notices quicker that the delinquency rate could have hit 10 percent and cost ratepayers who pay on time as much as $300,000 since they ultimately will have to absorb the losses Manteca is forced to write off.

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