Most of us expect water to run freely from our faucets without disruption. Pay your bill, and the water flows. But for some Galesburg residents, keeping up with their water bill has been a struggle during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When a resident falls behind, it sets off a potential snowball effect leading to late and delinquent fees, and eventual shutoffs.
Many are looking to local agencies for help. Salvation Army Director of Operations Meghan Templeton said the agency spent more than $100,000 in direct financial assistance from July through October, 2020.
“We don’t usually spend $100,000 in three months,” Templeton said.
The agency’s money helped pay for all utilities, not water alone, but much of the public focus in Galesburg has been on water service.
The situation began in March when the city instituted a moratorium on water service shut-offs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The moratorium was intended as a humanitarian measure. It meant residents were not being threatened by shutoffs.
But, as water faucets continued to flow, so did the bills. And once the city lifted the moratorium, late fees resumed – and so did shutoffs.
Public Works Director Wayne Carl said, “The city lifted the moratorium in August or September, and that created a lot of controversy because we started shutting people off in a pandemic, but the idea was that so many people were falling behind. We didn’t want to go another six months because then it gets to be almost untenable. They can’t come up with enough money to pay it.”
Delinquent accounts more than doubled from 306 in February to 650 by mid-summer, according to city officials.
Carl said the city does not receive any state or federal funding to cover the cost of delinquent bills, which means the city absorbs the cost.
“It does cost money to produce water and deliver it to people’s homes, and we do try to keep the rates low so there’s not a lot of cushion in there for people not paying,” he said. “People need to know they will be responsible for their bill unless the federal or state government steps in and provides some funds for that.”
But people who’ve found themselves without enough money to pay their water bills might end up spiraling into another major problem.
Julie Haugland, who works in Galesburg’s General Assistance office, said she’s worried about homelessness.
“My huge area of concern in July was that—especially in housing when people don’t pay their water bill—housing evicts them because you have to maintain your utilities,” Haugland said.
“I was very concerned about this huge group of people that were going to end up with shut offs because they have no income and there’s no way to get the money and there’s not enough agencies to help.”
After a public outcry, the city reinstated the moratorium on water shutoffs. That was good news for residents who were hurting economically. But it also created an unintended consequence.
Meghan Templeton of the Salvation Army said customers must provide delinquent and shutoff notices before social service agencies can give assistance. But no such notices were issued during the moratorium.
“We’re going to see households with these huge water bills that haven’t been paid for months and months. My staff told me we’ve probably turned away 60- 70 households who requested assistance that we have not helped,” she said. “We’re hoping the city will give us a letter stating (for example) this household is four months behind, and we can use that letter as documentation internally.”
Templeton said the Salvation Army and the city have worked collaboratively to resolve the administrative obstacle.
She hopes the community’s residents will show some compassion for those who are struggling economically.
“I would encourage everyone to extend everyone a lot of grace this year. Whether they’re behind on their bills because they chronically are, or because of the pandemic, it doesn’t really matter. We certainly don’t want any household to become homeless or not have water during the pandemic. That is not going to make our community safer. A household without any water is not going to be very clean,” Templeton said.
Over the past few months, Galesburg has worked on a water-rate study to assess its billing structure. The study might offer some solutions for the future. City officials say it will be discussed in early 2021.
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