Changes to the City of New Bern’s utility deposit policy were passed by the Board of Aldermen Tuesday night by a slim margin on a 4-3 vote. The changes, which will go into effect July 1, affords customers more flexibility than the city’s current policy.

The revised utility deposit policy states:

- Per fiscal year, deposits will not be assessed on the first payment arrangement.

- Payment arrangements may be billed as installments. No late penalties or fees will be assessed if the payment plan is adhered to as agreed upon.

- Per fiscal year, deposits will not be assessed for the first check returned for insufficient funds.

- New customers may pay deposits in installments with 50 percent due at the time service is established and the balance payable over four billing cycles. Payment arrangements will not permitted until the deposit is paid.

- New residential deposits shall not exceed $500.

The motion to accept the changes was made by Alderman Sabrina Bengel and seconded by Alderman Jameesha Harris.

An earlier motion by Bengel, which included the recommendation that utility deposits be returned after 18 months for all customers, failed for lack of a second.

The recommendation was spurred by Alderman Barbara Best, who expressed concern that, under the city’s current policy, customers who have kept up payments for 18 months have their security deposits returned but those who take advantage of the city’s payment arrangement option have their refund held an additional 18 months. Best argued the plan was unfair.

Alderman Harris said she disagreed with Best and Bengel’s motion died for lack of a second. Harris argued, in fact, that the City of New Bern should not return any utility deposit until the customer is no longer using the service.

“I think because we’re taking a higher risk of dropping (utility deposits) down to a flat rate...to meet in the middle there should not be a refund after 18 months, it should stay there and when they leave the City of New Bern’s utilities, they get a refund,” said Harris.

Aldermen Bobby Aster said he was concerned that the city would be holding onto utility deposits indefinitely

“That means you might hold someone’s deposit for 40 years,” he commented.

Mayor Dana Outlaw suggested that the board postpone a vote on the utility deposit changes until the city has had time to implement its new advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system as well as an option that would allow customers to pre-pay for utilities.

Alderman Jeffrey Odham and Johnnie Ray Kinsey echoed Outlaw’s suggestion.

“We don't know what the impact of AMI is going to be, it could be negative, it could be positive. It could be where we could be even more flexible than this ... I’m not in favor of just jumping the gun and doing something,” said Odham.

Kinsey said he would like to give the city’s new Utilities Director Charles Bauschard a chance to weigh in on the issue as well.

With Best’s support, Bengel made a second motion that did not include changes to the deposit refunds.

The motion passed 4-3, with Astor joining Best, Harris and Bengel in support.