February 14, 2017
Unpaid Water Bills Open Door to Advice
Nearly half of the low-income residents in some sections of Louisville are delinquent on their city water bills. In Newark, water customers’ unpaid balances have been known to reach $4,000.
The shutoff and reactivation fees that some cities charge when they stop a customer’s water service create another problem in places like Houston: they add to the unpaid balances of customers who are already struggling financially. Cities are also becoming more aggressive about collecting on their debts, hiring third-party collection firms.
Researchers and the National League of Cities tried an alternative in the form of an ambitious pilot program involving five city water departments: Houston; Louisville, Kentucky; Newark, New Jersey; Savannah, Georgia; and St. Petersburg, Florida. Driving the program was the recognition that unpaid water bills are an indication of deep financial distress. So the cities, which are loathe to turn off this essential service, embraced a broader vision: providing financial counseling to empower families with delinquent water bills to better manage their situations.
While every city’s pilot program was slightly different, Ohio State researcher Stephanie Moulton said they had two things in common: an agreement to restructure residents’ unpaid water bills to make them affordable, and at least one private session with a financial counselor or coach already working for the city or a local non-profit. Some cities added other services, such as screening for public benefits if a job loss had caused a resident to fall behind on the water bill.
Houston, for example, trained and certified six customer service representatives in its Department of Public Works to act as financial coaches, said Bonnie Ashcroft, a departmental section chief. The counselors who coached clients on their household finances also advised them on how to reduce their water bills.
It’s not possible to do a rigorous analysis of the pilot’s overall effectiveness, because each city’s water department is unique. But individual analyses of each city found three that showed marked improvements in their water payments, Moulton said. These successes were presented in a recent webinar.
In Houston, customers’ unpaid account balances declined, on average, from $544 to $374. Unpaid account balances in Newark went from $969 to $605. The frequency of payments in these cities also increased, Moulton said.
Water-service terminations declined in St. Petersburg, where program participants were half as likely to experience disrupted service.
One challenge was persuading some people to stick with the program. Between 20 percent and 45 percent of the initial participants dropped out of the various pilot programs. But at a time that income inequality is straining low-income workers and their municipalities, these five cities get credit for trying something creative.
As Houston’s Ashcroft said, “Everyone learned a lot, and that’s really benefited the Houston community.”
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