Every spring, a number of University of Delaware students pack up their off-campus house and skip town without paying their overdue electric bills.
All told, the city has more than 2,700 delinquent accounts that owe a total of $550,000. Most, but not all, are students.
“This is a game that’s been going on for years,” Mayor Jerry Clifton said. “It’s a game students play. It’s not that they don’t have the money to pay.”
Finance Director David Del Grande said the city is lenient when it comes to turning off electric service for unpaid bills, so students often think they can get away with not paying their last couple months of bills.
“Students tend to get an understanding of how the system works,” Del Grande said. “You simply pack up your things, leave the bill behind and never think about it again.”
The city has limited staff to pursue the unpaid bills, especially because students are all leaving at the same time. However, the finance department is planning to contract with a new collection agency later this year to go after the debts.
The tenant, not the property owner, is responsible for paying the electric bill, and state law does not allow the city to put a lien on the property to collect unpaid electric bills.
Meanwhile, the city is pursuing other strategies to cut down on unpaid bills. On Monday, Del Grande pitched city council on a plan to increase the deposit that tenants pay when opening an electric account.
Most tenants pay $100, but under the new plan, the deposit would increase to $300. When an account is closed, the deposit is refunded or applied toward unpaid bills.
Had the deposit been $300 in the past, the total amount owed would be about half of what it is today, Del Grande said.
The deposit requirement only applies to tenants, not electric customers living in owner-occupied homes.
Council endorsed Del Grande’s proposal by a vote of 5-1, though the actual ordinances will have to be voted on later.
Councilwoman Jen Wallace cast the lone opposing vote, arguing that a higher deposit would make it harder for young families who want to move into Newark. She proposed increasing it to $200 rather than $300.