Wednesday, July 16, 2008

No electricity for you!

How can the city's electric bill get to be $200,000 in arrears?

Did the city think it was getting paid?

But it wasn't?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Crystal City gets electricity shut off over unpaid bills
John MacCormack: Express-News

By the time the summer heat becomes unbearable, some municipality in Zavala County is probably out of money. And while in years past, it was often the county government that ran short, this time it’s Crystal City.

Not paying its electric bill brought predictable results for Crystal City. Late last week, a $200,000 past-due bill owed by the city prompted Houston-based Direct Energy to cut electrical service to some city meters.

“Whenever we move to disconnect a customer, whether residential, commercial or a municipality like Crystal City, it’s a last resort. We take that decision very seriously,” said Priscilla Tinsley, a utility spokesperson.

She said the disconnection came after “quite a lengthy time frame when they were in arrears,” but added, “we are working with them to avoid further disconnection.”

And although one or more city wells were put temporarily out of service because of the cut-off, no one in Crystal City went without drinking water, according to City Manager Diana Palacios.
“It was a mistake. We never had a disruption in service. At no time was anyone in our city left without electricity or water,” she said Monday.

She said various non-critical electrical usages are now disconnected as the city tries to reduce its $30,000 to $40,000 monthly electrical bill.

Mayor Benito Perez did not return a call Monday about the city’s financial situation.

A decision recently approved by the City Council to seek a bank loan to cover the budget shortfall should resolve the utility problem, Palacios said, adding that higher water rates may also be necessary.

“What we have is something that is not uncommon to most communities like ours,” she said.
“We’re in the summer months. The budget gets pretty tight and we’re having financial difficulties. It’s pretty normal around this time of year,” she said.

Palacios said significant shortfalls in income from the city’s detention center, which was built to house federal prisoners for profit, contributed to the financial crisis.

“We have had no income from the detention center for the last 10 months. The problem is there are not enough inmates,” she said.

The Zavala County commissioners, who in some years past have cut back county services and closed offices in late summer to save money, are also expected to soon seek a bank loan to tide them over until the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

“In summer, we usually run tight with revenues until the tax revenue comes in,” County Treasurer Susie Perez said. “The commissioners will be meeting next week. They will probably be borrowing some money to get to the end of the tax year,” she said.