Life’s Most Basic Need
It’s not housing or high-speed internet. Both of those are very important, but physically, the first (or last) thing humans need to survive is water. Clean water and its delivery system, public utilities, are where social equity meets environmental protection. Getting water is critical to everyone. Loss of water service means families must buy bottled water, or worse, sugary drinks for hydration while losing basic hygiene needs. After water is used, it needs proper sanitation to minimize humans’ daily impact on the environment around us.
Tapping Your Water Supply
The ease with which water flows from the tap and goes down the drain is deceptive, hiding the amount of work and investment in water rights, infrastructure and personnel needed to provide the very dependability and reliability that, in turn, makes us take them for granted. Can you imagine having to seek clean drinking water each day? Or, can you imagine raw sewage flowing from your home down the street?
How to Pay for It All
It all works well, but none of it is cheap to provide. Increased environmental requirements have increased the cost to run utilities. Most people would agree that the benefits are worth it, but they are costly requirements, nonetheless. As a public utility, the people who use the service pay for it. In simplistic terms, we figure out how much it will cost us to provide water, sewer and stormwater; then we divide that cost by how many people use it, and that’s the basis for your rates. Sumner’s City Council has worked to keep those rates as low as possible, meaning they’re based on the assumption of everyone paying what they owe with minimal cushion.
Why Non-Payment Is Not an Option
What happens when someone doesn’t pay for what they used? The other users must now pay for it along with their own cost. There are no shareholders to “absorb” unpaid costs, and legally, the City cannot “forgive” your bill, not matter what your circumstances. The costs literally move down the street to the next user, your neighbor. This is why utilities are strict about payment for services. If someone is struggling, we offer to arrange a payment plan, and they receive multiple late notices before reaching the point of shutting off their utilities. If we know of a community resource to assist their particular situation, we try to connect them to the appropriate assistance.
The Squeeze That’s Coming
Typically, Sumner has around 50 accounts at the point of shut-off each month. With COVID-19 we haven’t shut anyone off since February 2020. We now have 200-300 accounts that would qualify for shut off with past due amounts totaling over $300,000. We offered Sumner CARES Funding while we had it, but few took us up on the offer. Now, with the CARES Act funding closed out, we have no ability to “forgive” delinquent accounts. At some point, we will begin shutting off accounts for non-payment, leaving a lot of people without critical water service. And, if there’s no way to recoup those losses, we will have to look at raising rates for everyone else.
What to Do?
We wish we knew. We can see the problem, but our options to avoid it are few. We’re currently asking State legislators to consider funding help for utilities. And in the meantime, if you or your landlord are one of the delinquent accounts, please call us to arrange a payment plan. While we don’t have all the answers, we do know that ignoring the problem is most definitely not the solution.