Bad Batteries Bumping Up Water Bills - TribPapers
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Bad Batteries Bumping Up Water Bills

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Asheville – The City of Asheville’s Water Resources Director David Melton provided city council with an update on the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP). The state had received $38,000 from the federal initiative, and Melton was requesting council approval to apply for and receive a portion of the allocation. The water department had already “registered” with the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. 

Funds would pay only one monthly bill from a qualified low-income household experiencing hardship from the pandemic. Eblen Charities would manage disbursements by qualifying applicants and processing payments. The disbursements would flow from the federal government to the water department, without further consumer involvement. Program funds will be available through September 2023 or until the federal allocation runs dry, whichever comes first.

The Zoom floor was opened for public comment, and Patrick Conant led off. Slightly off-topic, he said the city should have a means of monitoring for anomalies in water bills. Conant said his water meter had a bad battery, so his bills were running low for six months before he got a “whopper.” He also had an elderly neighbor with a water leak, which caused him to fall behind in his water bills. He didn’t have a lot of money, and he didn’t know how to navigate the city’s bureaucracy. So, neighbors supplied him water in buckets until he ended up moving to public housing. Conant maintained there were no circumstances justifying water cutoffs just because people couldn’t pay their bills. Access to water as a human right was one of the “values we should hold as a city.”

This prompted Councilwoman Antanette Mosley to recall a similar situation with one of her neighbors. She said she didn’t use her position as a member of the council for leverage in her communications, but she found the water department staff to be helpful, communicative, and amendable to helping her neighbor.

Councilwoman Sage Turner next shared an experience she had with a water bill five times larger than usual. It was caused by a leak, but the city was helpful in offering a payment plan. Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore followed with, “I talk to plenty of people that have this.”

Problems like these go at least as far back as November 29, when the city posted a public service announcement that began, “Please let us know if you get an abnormally low water bill. Really. Because an error on the front side could result in a high bill a few months down the road – one you might find daunting to pay the next go-round.” Reasons given for billing errors included, “communication issues with meters, which are scheduled for replacement next year.” Hinting at the scope of the difficulties, the announcement read, “If the meter is the issue, it’s usually only a battery issue associated with the communication transmitter; the meter itself has been working and recording usage accurately.”

Excessively large bills could also be due to a leak. Melton said the city has an adjustment program for leaks that aren’t the customer’s fault. It will waive up to 75% of charges for an underground water leak, and 100% for a sewage leak, since the utility would not have treated leaked sewage. If a toilet is leaking inside a house, the city will waive up to 50% of the bill, provided the customer can demonstrate corrective action was taken in a timely manner. Melton added about 14 local charities also have programs for assisting with water bills.

City Manager Debra Campbell informed creative problem-solvers listening to the meeting that the water department is operated as a utility fund, and, as such, had to abide by legal constraints on the extent to which rates may be adjusted. To that, Melton added the water system was statutorily required to charge for services.

The City of Asheville first offered COVID relief for water bills in the form of payment plans for bills that became delinquent during pandemic shutdown orders. The city’s action came only a couple of weeks before Governor Roy Cooper suspended utility cutoffs statewide. The city’s program was extended somewhat as Stay-Home-Stay-Safe orders and public panic stretched into 2021.

The LIHWAP funds are coming from the federal government via the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). In the first phase of LIHWAP, Congress approved $638 million by way of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, the disbursement of federal funds to help water system customers pay their bills being celebrated as a historic first. Another $500 million appropriations followed in the ARPA.

North Carolina began accepting applications for LIHWAP funds on December 1 and required customers to have had or be in jeopardy of having their water services disconnected. In January, the program expanded the pool of eligible applicants to all households with at least one U.S. citizen, an outstanding water bill, and a combined income of no more than 150% of the federal poverty level.

Any LIHWAP funds the city receives will be in addition to the $26.2 million it was awarded by way of ARPA’s Local Government Fiscal Recovery Funds. These numbers do not include grants given directly to organizations or individuals within the city. ARPA funds were authorized in March last year, but it wasn’t until May that the first tranche was disbursed to local governments. The second tranche will go out in May this year. While the city has already awarded some grants, it has invited the remaining applicants to pitch their projects via Zoom on February 1 and 2.

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