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Water theft still an issue due to weak economy
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Water theft is still plaguing Manteca.

However, it’s getting tougher these days to steal water from the City of Manteca.

City crews in September locked off 58 more residential accounts after unauthorized restoration of service.  In some extreme cases culprits will build a bypass around the city meter. And in several cases reported almost on a monthly basis, residents cut off will tap into neighbor’s outdoor water faucet and get away with stealing water until such time as the neighbor gets his next water bill and notices his usage has skyrocketed.

Manteca had 425 accounts on a shut off list in September for non-payment of municipal utility bills. Service was restored to 342 of those customers after their bills were brought current. The delinquency rate citywide is about 2 percent for all residential accounts with about four-tenths of a percent of all water customers getting water shut-off permanently.

Delinquent municipal utility bills have been used as barometer of the health of the local economy.

The September numbers point to a continuing improvement based on a reduction in accounts actually being shut off permanently for non-payment of bills.

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

The City Council in June wrote off $294,366 in debt deemed by staff to be uncollectable. That included 690 utility accounts for water, sewer, and solid waste that have been inactive since June 30, 2011 representing $211,400 in debt. That represents an unpaid debt of $306 per account. The losses are absorbed by other ratepayers.

Last year Manteca wrote off $225,722.89 in uncollectable utility accounts. That reflects 745 accounts that have stuck the city with an average of $302 each in unpaid services.

Most of the non-collectable accounts are from renters and homes that have gone into foreclosure. And as such, they have served as an indicator of the impact on foreclosures on Manteca.

The city three years ago instituted a policy requiring a renter’s agreement when water servcie 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 - wil 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. Rate shave been unchanged for all three services now for three 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.

In 2007, the city issued 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 end up turning water service off to 400 homes in any given month.