Tennessee Association of Utility Districts
E-mail Notification

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March 18, 2020

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AN UPDATE FROM TAUD ON THE COVID-19 CRISIS

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In response to the COVID-19 public health emergency, the Tennessee Association of Utility Districts (TAUD) desires to provide its members helpful information as you deal with the day-to-day operations of your utility systems.

NRWA Statement on the COVID-12 Virus
The National Rural Water Association has issued a Statement on the COVID-12 Virus which can be found on the NRWA Website: https://nrwa.org/newsandmedia/news/.

Suspending the Termination of Water Service for Nonpayment
Some public water systems in Tennessee have decided to temporarily suspend the termination of water service for non-payment due to the coronavirus pandemic. Other water systems in Tennessee are considering the feasibility of plans to do the same. TAUD and its member utilities know that customers need access to clean drinking water, need to be able to practice good hygiene by washing their hands frequently, and need water for proper medical treatment.

The decision about whether to continue to enforce a utility's termination of service policy is a decision for each utility to make. To date, no Tennessee or federal law mandates that utility systems cannot terminate service for non-payment due to the coronavirus pandemic. While plans and policies differ with the individual utility, the utility should consider options which allow customer service to remain in place but keep a systemís water and wastewater utility revenue intact. These options might include:

  • Extending the utility's regular cutoff date to give customers additional time to pay before service is terminated.
  • Institute an agreement with a customer to spread out the payment of a monthly bill for a set number of months and add that amount to the customerís monthly bills for the agreed time period
  • Make referrals to agencies in the area that assist with utility bills (charities, religious organizations, local assistance programs).
  • Consider the implementation of a program which will allow customers to make voluntary contributions by paying an extra amount on their monthly bills to create a fund to assist customers who cannot pay their bills.
  • Because utility termination of service policies are generally established by the utilityís governing board, changes may require board action.

As a reminder, any option chosen should not be a cancellation of any utility bills, and customers should be encouraged to continue paying their bills promptly while offering alternative payment options during the public health emergency. Utilities should be careful not create unreasonable and precedent setting expectations.

New Legislation to Permit Electronic Board Meetings
The Tennessee General Assembly is passing legislation to amend the Tennessee Open Meetings Act (the Sunshine Law) to allow members of the governing boards of local governments in Tennessee to participate in board meetings electronically for a limited period of time1. At the time of this Update, there are minor differences in the bills passed by committees in the House and Senate. This legislation applies to the governing boards of utility districts, utility authorities, and municipal and county utility boards. To hold a meeting electronically, certain conditions must be met for the electronic meeting to meet the requirements of the Sunshine Law. Generally, the conditions which must be met are as follows:

  • The governing body may conduct an electronic board meeting without a quorum present when the board determines that a meeting by electronic means is necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or other related epidemics so as to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public and governing board members.
  • The governing body must document in the minutes of the board meeting the facts and circumstances which support the decision that meeting electronically is necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or other related epidemics.
  • Each board member participating electronically must able to simultaneously hear each other and speak to each other during the meeting.
  • Any board member participating electronically must identify persons present in the location where the board member is participating.
  • To the extent practicable, a board member attending a meeting electronically must be provided with any documents discussed or made available for the meeting.
  • If the governing body decides that limiting the publicís physical presence is necessary to protect the public health, safety and welfare, then the governing body must provide reasonable public electronic access to the meeting and must record the board meeting (including audio) and make the recording available to the public.
  • When a board member may participate electronically in a board meeting, the public notice of the meeting must state that electronic participation in the meeting will be permitted. The public notice must include instructions by which the public may electronically access the meeting or include instructions on how to access the recording of the meeting.
  • All votes taken must be by roll call vote.
  • A board member who participates electronically is considered present for the purposes of establishing a quorum and voting, but a board member who participates in a board meeting electronically cannot receive the meeting per diem.

This legislation will automatically be repealed on February 15, 20212. TAUD will be sending out more information about this legislation once it signed by the Governor and becomes effective.

Coronavirus/COVID-19 Readiness: Sustaining Operations3
Water and wastewater utilities should be prepared to address potential impacts to their ability to provide service due to personnel interruptions tied to COVID-19 pandemic. Water and wastewater systems play a vital role in maintaining the public health of Tennesseans and should put measures in place to ensure their systems continue to serve their customers and comply with all environmental and regulatory requirements. Water and wastewater operators are essential personnel. Customer service employees who can provide information and answer questions will continue to be important to the operation of your utility systems.

Public water and wastewater systems are expected to continue to monitor water quality and provide sample results to regulators during the COVID-19 pandemic. Preparing to maintain critical operations is a vital part of continuing to serve the public with potable drinking water and wastewater services. Your utility may want to consider the following:

  • Identify essential employees required to maintain continuous operation and designate an emergency backup for these employees in case they cannot report to work.
  • Encourage personnel to stay home when they are sick. Provide work-from-home or sick leave options.
  • Discuss backup or alternative shift rotations for personnel that need to stay home to care for themselves or loved ones.
  • Strategize implementation of an ancillary workforce (e.g. contractors, employees in other job titles/descriptions, retirees) to operate utilities on emergency basis.
  • When using remote access, discuss cyber security precautions and back-up critical files frequently as a prevention measure to restore data.
  • Encourage customers to avoid paying bills in person and to consider using alternate payment methods.
  • Stay stocked on chemical supplies and order products ahead of schedule to avoid delays from understaffed chemical suppliers and other vendors.
  • Generate back-up supplier contact list for essential chemical and operation needs.
  • Update/create detailed written instructions for crucial operations (i.e. shutdown, water quality sampling, public notification).
  • Review/update emergency response plan and contacts. Identify key customers with special needs such as hospitals and nursing care facilities.
  • Consider emergency food and overnight necessities at 24-hour facilities for personnel working long shifts.
  • Limit meetings, gatherings and travel.

Due to an outbreak of COVID-19, other utility systems may require operational assistance. Your neighboring utility systems are a great resource for backup coverage in case of emergencies. TAUD may be able to provide information on other resources when assistance is needed.

1SB2897/HB2815
2TAUD expects this bill to pass both houses by Friday, March 20, 2020.
3Information obtained from Rural Water Association of Utah: https://www.rwau.net/news/coronaviruscovid-19-readiness

Bob Freudenthal
Executive Director

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Tennessee Association of Utility Districts
840 Commercial Court
Murfreesboro, TN 37133
Phone: 615.896.9022
Email: [email protected]
Web: https://www.taud.org