As an emergency assistance case manager at Catholic Charities Community Services of Summit County, May has spent the last 11 months fielding calls from community members at risk of having the water shut off in their homes.
At the beginning of every week, the organization opens for calls at 9 am sharp. By noon, May has filled every slot. Every week, May says she receives hundreds of calls, but they can only offer assistance to 20 to 25 people.
“They don’t stop leaving messages,” May says. “By the end of the day, we’ve gotten more calls [from people] than we could ever help.”
There are several nonprofit organizations across the city that offer financial assistance for other utilities like gas and electricity, but few offer assistance explicitly for water, sewer and trash bills. In fact, Catholic Charities Community Services of Summit County is the only Akron-area organization offering financial assistance specifically to cover water, sewer and trash bills.
If you need help with your utility bills, call Catholic Charities Emergency Assistance Office at (330) 475-0091 to learn more.
“We’re one of the only games in town in terms of water [assistance],” says May, who has been involved with Catholic Charities for the last 20 years.
After a pause of several months, the City of Akron resumed water shutoffs in August, cutting off access to clean water for 2,686 accounts between Aug. 19 and Feb. 1.
On Jan. 4, Akron City Council voted against a moratorium on water shutoffs that would have lasted through March.
Because some residents are caught in a cycle of late payments and water disconnections, the number of shutoffs doesn’t necessarily represent 2,686 separate households. But councilmember Shammas Malik, who introduced the moratorium at City Council, said that number is still cause for concern.
“This represents likely thousands of people who have, at some point, been cut off from water during this COVID crisis,” Malik told his colleagues at a Jan. 4 committee meeting.
For Akronites struggling to pay bills, Malik said a moratorium on shutoffs could help give families the financial flexibility they need to make ends meet during the pandemic.
“Most water accounts are turned back on within a few days,” Malik tweeted on Jan. 5. “But it’s worth wondering where folks are finding that money — what other essentials are they forgoing to get their water turned back on?”
But some councilmembers and officials expressed concern that a water moratorium might cause residents to fall even further behind by allowing them to prioritize other bills or expenses in its place.
“A moratorium is a band-aid that can allow balances to grow without any long-term solution,” Akron mayor Dan Horrigan said in a Dec. 14 press release.
What to do if you need help with your water bill
In the absence of a city-wide moratorium on water shutoffs, the city has offered $700,000 in utility aid to residents through an emergency fund composed of “donations from customers, city employees and community partners.” The program is called Akron Cares, and offers residents up to $500 in credits toward overdue water bills.
The program recently received an additional $250,000 in federal CARES Act funding to be used for utility assistance.
Click here or call (330) 375-2554 to learn more about Akron Cares. The application can be submitted online.
In spite of the 2,686 water shutoffs between August 19 and Feb. 1, deputy director of finance Shelley Goodrich says the city has struggled to distribute the funds available through the Akron Cares program, and they plan to roll out a public information campaign that will include door hangers, robocalls and text messages that explain how and where to apply for assistance.
In order to receive financial assistance via the Akron Cares program, residents must submit an application and be able to prove they receive SNAP, WIC, Medicaid, OWF, HEAP, PIPP or Ohio Public Housing benefits. Residents can also receive help if they’re able to provide proof that their annual income falls below 300% of the federal poverty level.
Residents who are typically able to cover monthly utility bills but are experiencing financial strain as a direct result of COVID-19 must offer proof of recent hardship, typically in the form of unemployment applications or furlough letters.
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As of Jan. 6, the city says the amount of delinquent water, sewer and trash payments totaled more than $3.3 million — which only includes delinquent payments that are more than 60 days past due.
The city says that amount isn’t unusual for this time of year. In fact, the amount owed to the city in delinquent water payments in January 2020 totalled more than $4.5 million.
Even before the pandemic, councilmember Russ Neal says many residents have struggled to pay high water, sewer and trash bills.
A 2019 report from The Alliance for the Great Lakes found that Ohioans who use 6,000 gallons of water per month pay an average of $48.73 for sewer services and $47.73 for water each month. The Devil Strip analyzed the City of Akron’s water and sewer rates for comparison and found that Akronites using 6,000 gallons of water per month would pay $25.90 for water, but would rack up a sewer bill of $89.25 — nearly double the amount Ohioans typically pay for sewer services.
Akron’s high sewer bills are a result of the federally mandated overhaul of the city’s sewer system, a $1.4 billion project set to be completed in 2028.
While some Akronites aren’t able to pay water bills, the city says utility payments generate much-needed revenue to fund the project. During the Jan. 4 meeting, city finance director Shelley Goodrich reminded councilmembers: “We are also running a utility that is a business and needs revenue to sustain the utility.”
In a series of Jan. 5 tweets, Malik acknowledged Goodrich’s concern, but called the city’s water shutoffs “a crisis, hitting those in need hardest.”
At Catholic Charities, May knows the complexity of such a crisis all too well.
Next Monday, and the Monday after next, May will still be answering the phone and sorting through messages, trying to help whoever she can before every slot is filled.
When asked if her work as an emergency case manager has taken a personal toll, May lets out a sigh.
“It’s rough because there are so many people in need,” May says. “But I know I can only do what I can do.”
In this case, picking up the phone every time it rings.
H.L. Comeriato covers public health at The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach them at HL@thedevilstrip.com.