Water Leaks

by Jon Baliles

This week, Jeremy Lazarus of the  Richmond Free Press attended the City Council’s Governmental Operations Committee and found that “more than 6,300 homes and businesses in Richmond — 10% of the customer base — are facing disconnection of their utilities for nonpayment of water, sewer and gas bills.”

Yikes. That is essentially double the rate from five years go, and there is more than $35 million that is 90 days or more in arrears.

When the pandemic hit, the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) did what most cities across America did, suspending disconnections and ending late fees, etc. and announced they would eat the losses until November 2021, when those normal practices continued. By summer 2021, uncollected bills more than 90 days behind had climbed from about $9 million to $28 million.

DPU in the summer of 2020 automatically created repayment plans so customers could pay back a little at a time, with some payments as little as $5. Federal pandemic funds helped recover more than $19 million outstanding during the pandemic.

But by the end of 2021, it was found that “the department had repayment plans for 13,773 customers who had unpaid bills totaling about $12.5 million or $907 apiece, but only 54%, or about 7,440 customers had taken advantage. That leaves more than 6,300 customers who are not paying.”

So now, the department recently resumed “disconnections of offices, stores, factories and other nonresidential buildings that were far behind and of residential customers whose service was restored in 2020 but who had not paid since. The department also resumed sending out delinquency notices.” They also cancelled repayment plans that were never used.

That is all to say that we will be hearing more about this at Council meetings because of the coming rate increase Richmonders will see in their bills by an average of $5 to $7 per month, according to the presentation at the meeting. (It was all part of the budget process last spring, so, not a secret.) But it sounds to me like DPU was more proactive than not and put the federal money to proper use to help people as long as they could and eat the cost of some fees, etc. Still, the numbers are a bit scary.

DPU is tasked with miles and miles of very old sewers and water pipes and gas lines and faces hundreds of millions in mandates by state and federal environmental authorities to complete the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) system. So no one likes the rate increases but, from my experience DPU does do a pretty good job managing what they have to work with and what needs to be monitored and repaired/replaced, considering the planning and lead time (and cost) it takes for these projects, in addition to pipes that are 100+ years off that invariably burst in cold weather. They put their federal pandemic funds to the best practical use they could but the pandemic reckoning could be just beginning.

This column has been republished with permission from RVA 5X5.