A Florida business owner who was once down on his luck is giving back by covering the utility bills of 114 families who were facing disconnection.
Michael Esmond’s generosity started last year when he paid the utility bills of 36 households in his community of Gulf Breeze. This year, with both Hurricane Sally and Covid-induced economic turmoil hitting the city, he thought he needed to up the ante.
“This year to me probably is more meaningful that last year with the pandemic and all the people out of work having to stay home,” Esmond told CNN. “Hurricane Sally slammed us pretty good and hurt a lot of people. We still have a lot of the blue roofs here, where they’re just covered with tarps.”
Esmond donated $7,615.40 to pay for the past-due bills of 114 households, according to Joanne Oliver, the city’s utility billing supervisor. Holiday cards notifying the residents will be mailed this week, she says.
While Esmond’s donation increased from the $4,600 he paid last year, he says he was able to help about three times as many households. That’s because there were many residents who had bills due of $100 or less, so he was able to help more people.
“That really impacted me – that people can’t even afford to pay a $100 bill on their utilities and things are so bad,” Esmond said. “That’s why I was able to pay for 114 families.”
Business was good in 2020 for 74-year-old Esmond, owner of Gulf Breeze Pools and Spas. It’s something he says he’s “almost ashamed” to tell people because he knows how hard it’s been for many.
“We’ve had a good year, and that’s why I want to share what I have with the people who need it,” he said.
Beyond the coronavirus pandemic’s economic toll, Gulf Breeze has dealt with the lingering effects of Hurricane Sally, which hit the panhandle hard.
A storm-related accident damaged a section of the newly built Pensacola Bay Bridge that connects to Gulf Breeze, authorities said in September.
A barge slammed into a portion of the structure, known to locals as the Three Mile Bridge, Brad Baker, Santa Rosa County’s public safety director, said in a September Facebook video.
Given the pandemic’s havoc on the city, Oliver, the city’s utility billing supervisor, said residents are getting a longer grace period before their utilities for water, gas and sewer are disconnected.
“We’re not cutting customers off. We’re not disconnecting them for nonpayment until they are more than 60 days past due,” Oliver said.
The check Esmond wrote covered the bills for people who were 60 days past due, she says. The balance after that covered those who were more than 30 days overdue and had a Covid-19 deferral, as they were directly affected by the virus.
“Even though our country and our city is currently going through probably the most difficult years of some of our lifetimes, there are still people out there who are generous and kind and really do want to help others,” Oliver said. “To have others within the community wanting to reach out and help their neighbors, now is more important than ever.”
Esmond’s generosity comes from a place of understanding. In the 1980s, his utilities were shut off.
“I have been down on my luck like people are today, where I had trouble paying bills and raising three daughters,” he said. “The gas company shut the gas off and we didn’t have any heat.”
It happened to be the coldest winter he’s ever experienced in the area, and temperatures were in the single digits, he says.
“I can relate to people suffering and not being able to pay bills,” Esmond said. “That’s probably one of the biggest motivators for me, because I’ve been there.”
The timing of Esmond’s donation is no accident.
“People can’t afford to pay their bills and put food on the table, so I hope doing my part and paying some bills for these folks takes a little bit of stress off of them around Christmas time,” he said.
CNN’s Nicole Chavez and Jason Hanna contributed to this report.