WORTHINGTON — Less than 24 hours after announcing the Nobles County Government Center is indefinitely closed to the public due to the continued spread of COVID-19, commissioners were called into special session Thursday morning at the request of Worthington Public Utilities.
WPU Manager Scott Hain asked the board to reconsider actions it took Wednesday morning to close all access points to the government center. The utilities office is accessed by the Ninth Street entrance to the building.
Hain, saying he was taken “somewhat off guard” by the county’s decision, said there needs to be a way for utility customers to make cash payments on their utility bills. While WPU already offers a variety of ways for customers to pay — from automatic check withdrawals to payment by credit card over the phone, payment by mail and two payment drop boxes (one at the Ninth Street entrance and the other at Ace Hardware) — Hain said hundreds of customers prefer to walk in and pay their bill with cash.
“This is not a cash-flow issue for Worthington Public Utilities,” Hain was quick to explain. “We have a large number of clients who do in-person payment.”
These are customers who don’t have a credit card or don’t have a checking account, he said.
“If we don’t provide them an opportunity to come in and pay their bill, they’re going to get further and further behind and they’re not going to catch up,” Hain said, adding that a lot of the cash-paying customers walk in without their bill or account number, and WPU staff have to look up their account by its address. He said if customers are forced to pay at the drop box, he fears they may end up with cash in the box without identification of where the payment should be applied.
In addition to bill payments, Hain said applications for utility service must be physically delivered to the WPU office.
After much discussion by county commissioners on how best to prevent public access to the rest of the building, a 4-1 vote was cast to reopen the Ninth Street entrance from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The access will reopen Friday. Staff was directed to place extensive signage at the base of the staircase that leads to the second floor, telling people they are not allowed elsewhere in the building. If the public breaches the sign, Hain said he is willing to have a staff member posted on the staircase to block people from getting to other parts of the building.
Demuth voted in opposition to the motion. Earlier in the discussion, he said he wanted WPU to place a staff member at the staircase at all times, starting immediately.
In addition to the signage inside the building, Commissioner Matt Widboom asked WPU to consider increased signage at the drop box, including directions for use in various languages, the WPU phone number for questions and envelopes so people can pay by cash with their information noted.
“We could have to do business differently for a long time,” Widboom said.
“I agree, we could provide more direction for the drop box, but we can’t do it overnight,” Hain replied, adding that his preference would be to have all customers use automatic payment, mail-in payment or credit card payment over the phone.
“But that’s never going to happen,” he added.