Lynchburg officials are threatening to turn off the faucets for more than 1,000 households behind on their water bills.
Water service cutoffs in the city have been suspended since March 19. At the time, city officials said the cutoffs were halted to ensure residents could continue to wash their hands with running water to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
But after more than five months without disconnects, the city is preparing to “slowly and methodically” resume water cutoffs as soon as September, according to Chief Finance Officer Donna Witt.
The city has decided to largely follow the State Corporation Commission’s approach to resuming utility cutoffs. The regulatory body, which has no official authority over the city's water department, 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 next month, calling the practice “not sustainable.”
Despite a recent spike in local COVID-19 cases, Lynchburg City Council appeared to agree with that assessment at a July 14 meeting where officials provided an update on city revenues during the economic downturn. None of the body’s seven members have publicly suggested the city extend the suspensions into the fall.
“I’m not comfortable with the shutoffs at all,” Mayor MaryJane Dolan said. “But I don’t know what the alternative is at this point.”
COVID-19 cases have recently begun to rise in the Central Virginia Health District, which includes the Hill City and surrounding counties. Health officials recorded 155 new cases this week — the largest rise in local infections in a single week since the start of the pandemic.
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 figures Witt presented to council last week, 1,065 accounts — or a little more than 4% of the city’s 24,000 water customers — were late on payment and subject to possible disconnect during the month of June.
Just 296 accounts were subject to disconnect during the same month last year.
Witt said late customers currently owe a collective $200,000 to the city. The average cost of a monthly water bill for a family of four is about $73.
Witt said federal rules prevent the city from using portions of the $7.1 million it was awarded as part of the CARES Act to offset lost revenue, including any money lost to water cutoff suspensions.
According to Lynchburg Water Resources Director Tim Mitchell, the city is still determining how exactly to approach the pending disconnects and could reevaluate the decision to resume cutoffs in the coming weeks. He said his office is also considering raising the threshold for cutoffs to a specific dollar amount before gradually lowering them.
“We don't want to go out and cut off 1,000 customers the day after we start cutting people off again,” he said. “We want to do this with as minimal impact as possible.”
Mitchell said the water resources department has urged residents behind on their bills to seek assistance through local nonprofits. Lynchburg Community Action Group, Miriam’s House and Interfaith Outreach Association were awarded a total of $285,000 to help residents impacted by the pandemic pay for utility costs, among other needs.
Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.
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