When Maria Rufino moved to Lodi five months ago, she was shocked to find out that she and her roommate would have to pay two deposits that totaled $650 to turn on their electricity.
Rufino had to pay the standard $325 deposit for a three-bedroom home.
But the city also charges another deposit for people who do not have a form of U.S. identification. Rufino's roommate is from Mexico and does not have an ID, so in total, they were required to pay $650 for the two deposits.
She explained her frustration to the Lodi City Council on Wednesday night through translator, Sophia Scherman, an Elk Grove councilwoman who happened to be at the meeting.
"It's quite difficult for them to come up with $650, and they don't understand why they both have to pay if they are living in the same home," Scherman translated.
The unexpected topic of conversation came up while the council was discussing changes to the city's ordinance focused on utility bills.
The city sparked controversy last fall by taking due dates off of utility bills to conform with an ordinance passed in 1990 that says bills are "due upon receipt." Lodi put the due dates back on the bills in December after residents contacted city staff more than 1,000 times to complain about the new system.
As Deputy City Manager Jordan Ayers continued to study the ordinance, he found out that Lodi was not in compliance with a list of other issues and needed to reconsider both the ordinance and the city's current billing practices.
For example, the city's 20-year-old ordinance says that if someone does not pay their bill, their electricity gets shut off 30 days after the bill is due. Currently, people have an average of 70 days from when they do not pay their bill until the power is finally are cut off.
The council approved a new timeline Wednesday where the city shuts off a customer's power 46 days after not paying their bill.
The city hopes to reduce the amount of bad debt they write off by having a 46-day timeline that is closer to the two-month deposit they collect from some customers.
The city charges a deposit to new customers, but it can be waived if they have proof from another utility that they have a good payment history, Ayers said. The council also charges a deposit if a customer has their electricity shut off and then restarts it.
The deposits are refunded on a customer's bill if they remain in good standing for a year, Ayers said.
The city wrote off $545,000 of bad debt during the last fiscal year, which is split among all of the ratepayers. It accounts for 0.21 percent of the bills.
Lodi resident Ed Miller questioned whether the city had some way to tell if the shortened timeline is effective in the city accumulating less bad debt. Miller is a member of Citizens In Action, the local Tea Party group.
City Manager Rad Bartlam said the city will monitor the results and report back to the council.
Rufino's main concern about the $650 deposit was solved with new wording in the ordinance. If at least one person in a home has a U.S. identification card, then the customers do not have to pay additional deposits for other roommates who do not have U.S. identification.
Councilman Larry Hansen questioned why the city had an additional deposit requirement.
"My guess is that there is probably a pretty high rate of non-U.S. ID people defaulting on their accounts," Hansen said.
Ayers said he believes that was the reason, but did not have any numbers on how frequently those without an ID default.
Bartlam said the city has to weigh a variety of factors when creating ordinances. If the council does not require higher deposits for those without a U.S. ID and the person defaults, that is money all of the ratepayers have to absorb, he said.
"The downside is the potential of ratepayers losing money and that's the value discussion for the council. ... We've added in these safeguards and maybe there's a case that we've gone too far. If we have gone too far, then you can scale it back," Bartlam said.
Rufino also said she has spoken with a variety of people who are offended with how they are treated when paying their utility bill.
"They are not very respectful. If (someone is) not in clean clothing, or if they are coming from work, it shows that (the employees) are not really happy to deal with them," Rufino said.
Hansen and Councilman Alan Nakanishi requested that Ayers mention those concerns to the staff.
"It's not our intent to treat people based on how they are dressed or whether they are coming in from a hard day of work," Hansen said.
One of the other concerns Rufino had is that the city was checking utility customer's Social Security numbers and reporting them to immigration if they are not here legally.
Ayers said they do run a credit check and are required by federal law to make sure that the Social Security numbers are valid, but they do not report people to immigration.
Mounce thanked Rufino for bringing the issue about the additional deposit to the council's attention, and the city will refund one of the two $325 deposits that Rufino and her roommate paid.
Rufino, who moved from Los Angeles to Lodi, said she plans to attend more council meetings because so many people in the Latino community do not speak up about issues that affect them.
"She said she will be coming a lot because a lot of people in the community are asleep and they are not paying attention," Scherman translated.