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.

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12 responses to “Water Leaks”

  1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    I wonder how much is commercial real estate…. the latest Covid shoe that is just starting to drop…

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      You mean like the Detroit Lions and the stadium?

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Makes one wonder how DPU is paying it’s bills. Water works and wastewater plants don’t operate for “free”. Not sure how Richmond works but up our way, water and sewer are separate from tax-funded govt and operate off of connection fees and monthly fees – and they have to repay their bonds (which may be guaranteed by the county, not sure).

    I’m skeptical that DPU is going to get all the unpaid bills and not surprised they are going to increase rates.

    Makes me wonder if other city-type water/sewer systems are dealing with similar issues.

  3. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    A couple of years after we moved into a condo building in Northside, the board discovered the building had not received a bill from the city for water for more than year. The bill was for the whole building, as the individual units did not have meters. So along with those not paying as that story reports, there may be a few more not even getting billed. What the association eventually paid was probably not everything the city had failed to bill.

    Probably a similar situation with other utilities beyond the municipal services. The freebies and forbearance are going away just as the prices spike. Inflation taxes the poor the hardest.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Being poor is a tax.

  4. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    I can fully agree with utility cutoffs for nonpayment but one utility’s method is to open the clean out box and insert an inflatable cork. This is wrong. There needs to be a Constitutional Right to use the sewers. Have you ever seen one of HGTV’s house flips? That’ll destroy adjacent houses too.

    1. How does it destroy adjacent houses?

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Overflow, vermin, disease, etc. Having watched a couple of episodes of “Hoarders: Buried Alive” there is no way that it cannot affect any house with 1000 yards.

        1. Once the water is cut off to a house, the occupants have no way of flushing toilets without bringing in water from another source. This is difficult to do over the long haul, so it is rare for people to intentionally overflow the sewer lines in their own dwelling.

          With that said, it is also rare for a public utility to ‘cut-off’ the sewer service in the manner you describe. Losing their water service is usually motivation enough for the occupant/owner to pay their bill and get service restored.

  5. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Man! Richmond can’t even run the sewers right.

    1. I have some sympathy for the Richmond DPU on this. Historically underfunded and saddled with old ‘combined’ sewers (some as old as 150 years) they have a very difficult job trying to stay out of regulatory trouble. Based on my observations, it is my opinion that the Department of Public Utilities is one of, if not the, best functioning department(s) in the city.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        Agreed. Usually those workers can do many things and are paid peanuts for it. I always ranked them up with the fire department in terms of what can they get done on a shoestring.

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