by Jim Coleman —

Memphis City Council members want to meet jointly with Memphis Light Gas and Water officials to see what can be done about utility cutoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The potential meeting was discussed the council meeting Tuesday (Sept. 15).

In other business Tuesday, the council took aim at banning payday lenders in the city.

The city-owned utility resumed cutoffs Monday (Sept. 14).

A cutoff moratorium was begun at the beginning of the pandemic because of the resulting business closures and layoffs.

The moratorium ended in August. Two weeks later, it was reinstated again after a slew of complaints.

“If we could possibly figure out how to have a joint board meeting of the MLGW board and our board where we can discuss this along with other issues that are pending,” said Councilman Dr. Jeff Warren, a physician.

The council’s reaction came following public comments. Several emails were read aloud criticizing the move.

A further concern was the plight of school children. Because of the pandemic, Shelby County Schools students are being taught virtually, which requires internet service to attend school.

“It is my understanding that schools will be paying for utility bills for their children who are in homes without electrical services up to $200,” said council Chairwoman Patrice Robinson.

The emails were forwarded to the utility by Robinson earlier in the day. MLGW responded citing a legal issue as the reason why bills haven’t been forgiven.

“According to the information that I have from Memphis Light Gas and Water that is a legal issue and by federal law you cannot forgive or give away any electric, gas or water,” said Robinson.

She also noted that the council has placed money with several organizations to help people keep their lights on.

“Some of those organizations that we listened to today ⸺ grant recipients ⸺ are going to be providing (assistance) and we will have a list for all citizens at a portal, where they can see where dollars are available,” said Robinson.

With council’s approval, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland redirected $3.5 million from the city’s CARES Act funding on Aug. 26 to help Memphian’s cover utility costs. Those funds are being allotted to nonprofits through the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association.

“It reminds me of being on the school board and trying to get money from the City Council and the County Commission when we didn’t have taxing authority.

“We as a council are in a position where we may or may not have authority how we can provide moratoriums that allows people to keep their power on or keep them from being evicted, but I think all of us want to make sure that occurs and we need to do something to make it happen, if we can,” said Warren.

The council also unanimously adopted a nonbinding resolution to send to the state legislature, banning payday lenders in the state and revoking their business licenses.

“Payday lenders, under the guise that they are cheaper to borrow from than a conventional lender, as an email I received said, is a farce. It’s insulting that someone would make that case,” said the resolution’s sponsor Councilman Chase Carlisle.

The resolution notes that the lenders are licensed by the state government to provide loans of up to $500. A fee amount of the loan is capped at 15 percent of a check’s amount along with an annual interest rate of 460 percent.

It also criticizes the businesses for trapping cash-strapped people into a cycle of repeat loans, aggressive collection practices and jeopardizing bank accounts of “families that live on the financial edge.”

Carlisle said, “We are not asking that liquidity be removed from underserved communities. This body, just for the public’s edification, is advocating for other entities to come in and partner with us and our community leaders in serving those communities and helping them find access to capital.”

Memphis’ poverty rate is 27.8 percent, which includes many working poor who are often the most vulnerable to what are generally considered predatory businesses.

The vote comes nearly a year after the Shelby County Commission approved a resolution requiring the lenders to adopt signage disclosing terms of loans.