With coronavirus cases spiking, the city of Lynchburg is scrapping plans to turn off the faucets next month for nearly 1,000 households behind on their water bills.
“We thought we were going to be able to start [the water disconnects] in September, but as our COVID numbers go up, we’re not sure that’s the right thing to do,” Chief Finance Officer Donna Witt told members of Lynchburg City Council on Tuesday.
Witt said the city is now in a “wait and see“ mode when it comes to resuming cutoffs, adding, “We don’t have a plan to start disconnects.”
Water cutoffs have been suspended since March 19 to ensure residents have access to clean water during the pandemic. City officials said last month they were planning to slowly resume the disconnects as early as the first week of September.
But in recent weeks, COVID-19 cases in the Central Virginia Health District have been on the rise, forcing the city to reevaluate the planned disconnects.
The district, which includes the Hill City and surrounding counties, passed 1,500 coronavirus infections and marked its 16th death Tuesday, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Also Tuesday, Centra reported it’s seen 37 COVID-19-related deaths at Lynchburg General Hospital. The health care provider’s catchment area includes Lynchburg, the surrounding counties and stretches all the way to Farmville.
“We want to make sure people have water to wash their hands,” Witt said. “We don’t want to do anything that’s going to make the pandemic worse in any way.”
With 10% of the city’s workforce out of work as a result of the global health threat, the number of households behind on their water bills has more than tripled from pre-pandemic levels.
According to updated figures Witt presented to city council, 1,036 accounts — or a little more than 4% of the city’s 24,000 water customers — currently are late on payment and are subject to possible disconnection.
Before the pandemic, the city generally saw about 250 to 350 delinquent accounts at any one time.
Of the 1,036 delinquent accounts, 990 are residential accounts and 46 are non-residential accounts, which includes businesses in the city.
Taken altogether, Witt said the late customers owe $183,097 to the city. About half of the delinquent accounts owe a balance of $100 or more. The average cost of a monthly water bill for a family of four is about $73.
The majority of the late accounts — 584 — are concentrated in Ward II, which includes some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Ward I has 108 late customers, Ward III has 160 and Ward IV has 184.
Vice Mayor Beau Wright said the city should explore all its options before resuming blanket disconnects, including raising the threshold for cutoffs to a specific dollar amount.
“There are different avenues that are available to us [other] than actually disconnecting people,” he said.
According to Lynchburg Water Resources Director Tim Mitchell, state officials have not yet provided official guidance on how to conduct utility disconnects and the Virginia Department of Health has not issued any recommendations.
The Virginia Poverty Law Center has called on the General Assembly to ban utility companies and municipalities from shutting off vital services during the pandemic when it meets for a special session next week. As part of its own proposed legislation, the center has urged the state to develop a repayment program for individuals behind on their bills.
“Families should not have to fear having their necessary utility service discontinued because their income has been decimated by COVID-19,” Jay Speer, the center’s executive director, said in a statement.
The State Corporation Commission banned privately-owned utility companies from cutting off service for nonpayment through the end of August but has refused calls to extend the ban beyond, calling the practice “not sustainable.”
Meanwhile, city officials are urging customers behind on their water bills to seek assistance from local nonprofits. Interfaith Outreach Association, a Lynchburg-based nonprofit, has established a water bill relief fund to provide direct assistance.
Witt said the city also is considering administering additional grant money to local nonprofits to help customers behind on their bills, including Interfaith Outreach. The state recently awarded the Hill City an additional $7.1 million in coronavirus aid as part of a second round of allocation of federal relief, on top of the $7.1 million received in May.
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