Starkville Utilities Department announced Tuesday that a partnership with Tennessee Valley Authority has brought in $7,500 to help cover Oktibbeha County residents’ late utility bills, less than two weeks before the Mississippi Public Service Commission lifts its suspension on disconnections for missed and late payments.
United Way of North Central Mississippi is providing an additional $7,500, for $15,000 total.
TVA allocated a certain amount of money to all 154 of its member utility providers for COVID-19 relief, giving $10,000 to SUD, SUD General Manager Terry Kemp said. Of that, $2,500 will go to Starkville Strong, a COVID-19 relief group that supports local businesses and citizens who are financially struggling due to the pandemic. Starkville Strong has received another $2,500 from Starkville Rotary Foundation.
The remaining $7,500 of the funds TVA allocated to SUD is being distributed to United Way’s Emergency Management Fund. That money, combined with the $7,500 already in the fund, will be used to provide financial assistance to families who have needed help paying their bills since the pandemic started.
“We’ve had some wonderful individuals and businesses donate to this specific initiative,” United Way executive director Candy Crecink said. “We want to make sure people stay in their houses or apartments, so it’s been a wonderful experience to see how people are caring for each other.”
SUD and other utility companies around the state began halting disconnections on March 14, partly in response to requests from the Mississippi State Department of Health and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. It was set to end Thursday, but PSC announced Tuesday that it would extend the suspension for the third time, until 5 p.m. May 26.
Kemp said in April that SUD had “seen an uptick” in missed payments since PSC’s announcement in March. The amount of money customers owe after the payment deadlines is 12 percent higher than normal, and 27 percent of customers missing payments had not missed any before the pandemic, Kemp said.
The number of past due bills is “flattening” and now closer to SUD’s “typical monthly challenge,” but the money from United Way and the SUD/TVA partnership will not cover everyone’s late payments, Kemp said.
SUD did not have a concrete plan a month ago to address delinquent pay arrangements, and Kemp had said he hoped it would take less than a full year for customers to be able to pay their debts. He told The Dispatch on Wednesday that he now hopes to have almost all SUD accounts up to date in the next 60 days, and the department is working with people individually to determine how to get the bills paid.
“We’ve delayed for two months, so the optimum of what we would look for is that we would correct it in two months,” Kemp said. “It may take longer in certain special situations, but generally speaking, we can hopefully have all the accounts up to date in two to three months. We would expect or anticipate having most of the tabs up to date probably within the next 30 days.”
Additionally, 4-County Electric Power gave a $10,000 grant to United Way for its food drive, and the money will be split among more than 20 food pantries in Oktibbeha, Choctaw, Webster and Winston counties to buy food items, Crecink said. Oktibbeha County is the only one of the four that has the capacity to hold food drives at the moment, she said, and United Way collects non-perishable food items in front of Vowell’s, Kroger, Walmart Neighborhood Market and the Starkville Daily News.
4-County announced earlier this month that it will not disconnect members’ power for non-payment through June 1.
Crecink said United Way greatly appreciates the generosity of both individuals and organizations.
“From the very start, it’s just been mesmerizing to watch,” she said.
Tess Vrbin was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.