The city plans to get tougher in its effort to collect more than $7.3 million it’s owed for water services, officials said.
The bulk of the outstanding money, about $6.4 million, is owed by former customers, while active customers owe only about $1 million, city spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.
The amount doesn’t include bills that have gone unpaid for less than 30 days, Barnett said.
The city hopes to partner with a law firm to track down old customers and collect payment, Finance Director Mike Loftin said.
“If it’s a prior customer, we don’t have cutoff as an incentive, plus we don’t know where they are,” Loftin said.
The city doesn’t hold property owners accountable for the water bills of their renters, Loftin said.
Only about 3,600 of the 21,400 currently active water accounts, 16.8 percent, have outstanding payments, Loftin said.
But 16,000 inactive accounts owe money, which presents a problem to the city, Loftin said.
This problem isn’t anything new, but city officials want to come up with a strategy to solve it, City Manager Brian Maxwell said.
“This is not uncommon for us,” Maxwell said. “We have a lot of people who just up and leave. One of the solutions is raising the deposit, but when you raise the deposit it becomes quite burdensome for people.”
People abandoning their water accounts could be a result of rising rent prices, Richard Denson, president of the Galveston County Apartment Association, said.
“I know a lot of people raise rents really quick and they have to,” Denson said.
Rents might rise to account for higher property taxes or insurance fees, but if a tenant moves because they can’t afford the rent, they likely can’t afford their water or electric bill either, Denson said.
“They turn around and leave and go to a different state,” Denson said.
For active customers, the city aims to ramp up its enforcement efforts with a more aggressive cut-off policy and payment plan options, city officials said.
Reviewing these owed accounts is part of a city effort to review its assets and property, Mayor Jim Yarbrough said.
“Receivables are an asset to the city,” Yarbrough said. “We ought to have an annual clean up, not wait 25 years and do $6 million at a time.”
The Galveston City Council will need to approve any new plans or policies, a subject that will likely be discussed this spring, city officials said.