Proposed law to prevent water shutoffs just a drop in the bucket, advocates say
Some take water from a nearby hose. Others fill buckets at a neighbor’s home just to flush the toilet. People who’ve had their water shut off due to unpaid bills often resort to desperate measures.
So disheartening are their stories that volunteers at West Seattle Helpline’s call center often quit because they can’t take hearing them.
“One of the hardest things to do is keep volunteers in that Helpline office answering the telephones because of the tears and the sadness,” said Rev. Ron Marshall of First Lutheran Church of West Seattle who helped found the Helpline.
Call center volunteers find it hard to believe that people in Seattle are living in conditions most often associated with developing countries, Marshall said.
He does, too: “It’s a right, not a service, to have water in your house in this country.”
According to local law and the state constitution, however, water is a commodity, and you have to pay for it. More than 4,000 times a year, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) shuts off water service to households who haven’t paid for it.
The fact that some of those households include children stirred City Councilmember Jean Godden to propose a law that would prevent shutoffs for low-income families with children in the house. Under the proposed law, families making 70 percent or less of the area median income can receive bill forgiveness twice a year. As it stands now, those families can receive bill forgiveness once a year.
When it comes to preserving access to water, Godden’s bill is a drop in the bucket. SPU shut off the water to 165 low-income households in 2012; 27 of them lost water multiple times in the year. SPU estimated that had Godden’s law been in effect in 2012, the utility could’ve kept the water flowing to 68 households.
SPU can offer annual bill assistance to anyone who meets the income requirements, even if they haven’t signed up for the utility’s low-income rate.
SPU has offered a program for low-income households since 1990. Those who qualify can get their water billed at half the normal rate. There are 13,000 households registered for the lower rate, at a cost of $7.6 million annually to SPU.
But many more families, apparently unaware of SPU’s low-income program, have sought help elsewhere.
John Nanney, who works at St. Vincent de Paul’s Helpline, receives hundreds of calls each week from families who can’t pay bills, often water bills. Half of the callers are single mothers. Most, he said, have not signed up for the lower utility rate that might qualify them for further assistance, typically because they’re unaware of it.
Of the 800 applications for utility assistance that the West Seattle Helpline received in 2012, the nonprofit was able to help just 130.
At a recent meeting on the proposed legislation, Nanney told SPU that there are many more than 68 households that need help affording water.
“These statistics,” he said, referring to SPU’s report, “do not accurately capture the problem, from my experience.”
Advocates for low-income people argue that shutting off water is a poor method to get people to pay their bills.
“Isn’t there a better way to motivate these folks than having this hammer hanging over their head?” Marshall said.
Bill Talbot, social service director at the Salvation Army, remembers needing help. Ten years ago, with children at home, he faced a $600 bill. SPU offered to cut the bill in half, but Talbot couldn’t even scrounge up $50, let alone $300.
“You have to live that way one time in your life to understand how important water is,” Talbot said. “Water is everything.”
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