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Number of Roanoke Valley residents behind on their water bills triples during COVID

Number of Roanoke Valley residents behind on their water bills triples during COVID

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Brandi Wilkins once went a week without water at her house.

“And I would never wish something like that on my worst enemy,” she said.

“I had to go to my mom’s to take a shower and wash clothes. I have two teenage girls who couldn’t do their hair or makeup. You couldn’t wash your face, flush commodes … it was hard. It was stressful. You can’t live without water.”

She isn’t sure why her water was turned off — the Western Virginia Water Authority said it has no record of Wilkins’ water being disconnected, although she had an unpaid water bill from years earlier and she had failed to pay a connection deposit at her new place. The COVID-19 pandemic added to her financial worries. Her fulltime job with the nonprofit Total Action for Progress was reduced to 20 hours a week, but bills kept piling up.

She and her daughters were left high and dry until they received help from the water authority’s assistance program called Authority Cares.

“They were just awesome,” Wilkins said of the program.

Wilkins, 35, is far from alone when it comes to people struggling to pay their water bill during the pandemic crisis.

The number of Western Virginia Water Authority customers who are behind on their water bills has tripled during the COVID-19 pandemic. As of this week, 1,053 households in the Roanoke Valley face potential water cutoffs, were it not for a short-term moratorium on disconnections implemented by the water authority, with more than 900 of those in Roanoke. The rest are spread among water authority customers in Roanoke, Franklin and Botetourt counties.

Even though that number accounts for just 1.6% of the authority’s approximately 62,000 customers, the number is considerably higher than the same period in 2019 when 362 households were behind and faced disconnections. The current delinquencies add up to $295,983.88 in past-due debt, according to authority spokesperson Sarah Baumgardner.

“There has been a steady progression of people falling behind on their bills,” said Mike McEvoy, the Western Virginia Water Authority’s executive director.

People with overdue bills could have had their water turned off by now, except that the authority placed a moratorium on most disconnections as the pandemic spread this spring and summer. The water authority has not set a date for disconnections to resume, but delinquent customers are being contacted and told of options for getting bills paid off.

The biggest support program is Authority Cares, which was established in 2017 and offers delinquent customers up to $300 in pledges to pay off a monthly water bill. People can receive two pledges a year, and they can apply for a third month if they participate in a United Way-sponsored financial program that would help them solve their household expenses and budgeting problems, Baumgardner said.

Authority Cares gets its money from a portion of insurance policies sold by HomeServe, a company that began working with the water authority in 2017 to offer customers coverage for external water lines, sewer lines and internal plumbing. Currently, Authority Cares has about $190,000 available for customers.

Roanoke also kicked in an additional $100,000 from federal funds the city received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Roanoke County and Franklin County also earmarked some CARES Act funds for assistance with utility bills.

The city must spend its CARES Act money by the end of the year, so water authority customers who need help are encouraged to apply soon, Baumgardner said. The water authority, however, will return any unspent CARES Act money to the city on Dec. 11, so applications for Authority Cares funds should be made before then.

Paying off a water bill is significant for individuals and families, because overdue water bills typically indicate deeper financial problems.

“If you’re having trouble paying your water bill, you’re having trouble paying other bills because water is the lowest,” Baumgardner said.

The water authority is not regulated by the State Corporation Commission, which has suspended regulated utility service disconnections until Oct. 5.

Wilkins, who has received a total of $385 from Authority Cares to cover past-due water bills, also needed assistance with electricity bills, she said. The pandemic has also brought additional expenses, such as pricey high-speed internet that her daughters need for online education.

“I can’t get the cheap package,” said Wilkins, who pays $115 per month for Cox internet service so that daughters Rhonda, 15, and Bethanie, 14, can do all their schooling virtually at home during the pandemic.

The fact that her work hours have been cut in half during the pandemic has exacerbated financial stress, she said. Expenses for groceries, utilities and gasoline add up, not to mention the girls still had to pay certain school fees even though all their classes are online.

“It’s really hard for single mothers not to be able to work,” Wilkins said. “I don’t have money lying around saved.”

Even individuals with relatively low water bills are struggling. Margaret Payne, 54, is a former home health care provider who was injured on a job in 2001 and receives a monthly disability insurance payment of $618. Even though the amount of her monthly check hasn’t changed and her water bill only runs about $50 a month, she missed a payment earlier this summer because she had given some money to relatives who were in need because of pandemic-related financial problems.

“I’ve been checking on family members,” said Payne, who lives on Hanover Avenue in northwest Roanoke. “I’m a very giving person. I try to help if I can. I help with food or utilities if they really need it and go lacking myself.”

She tried conservation, but that wasn’t enough to allow her to make her monthly payment.

“I tried not to use as much,” Payne said. “I kept using a little less, a little less, a little less.”

Eventually, she received help from Authority Cares to cover her missed payment. The one-time pledge allowed her to balance her monthly budget, she said.

“If they weren’t there, I would have had trouble with my utilities,” Payne said. “I had to rely on extra help since the pandemic has made things worse. Money is kind of at a standstill these days.”

Many of the customers who apply for Authority Cares assistance come through the city’s Central Intake office, which helps people who are homeless or could be at risk of becoming homeless. Usually, the program is geared for households that make less than half of the Area Median Income, but the water authority expanded eligibility to people whose jobs and finances were hurt by the pandemic.

The authority also works with United Way, Roanoke Area Ministries, Council of Community Services and the Department of Social Services to help people obtain pledges to pay off overdue bills. Central Intake has seen an increase in numbers of people needing assistance with monthly rent and utility bills.

“Most of those coming in are in a crisis, especially due to COVID” said Sandy Peggins, an intake specialist for the city who worked with both Wilkins and Payne. “They’ve had a loss of a job, a loss of hours, a loss of daycare. Being able to listen to them is one of the important things. They need to be heard and shown care and compassion.”

Wilkins, who went through Central Intake to apply for assistance, said that kind of personal touch made asking for help easier.

“She got to know me on a personal level,” Wilkins said. “They don’t treat you like you’re poor. They treat you like you’re somebody.”

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Ralph Berrier Jr. has worked at The Roanoke Times since 1993. He covers the City of Roanoke and writes the Dadline parenting column.

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