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State stalls on distributing relief to residents struggling to pay water bills

by Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor

Nearly seven months after the state launched a $24 million program to help low-income residents pay their water bills, 95% of the money remains unspent, even as more than 100,000 households statewide owe more than $40 million in unpaid water bills.

New Jersey was one of the last states to launch its Low Income Household Water Assistance program, funded by more than $1.1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan given to states to help struggling residents pay their bills, avoid shutoffs, and restore terminated service.

Since the state program’s March launch, it has paid only $1.2 million to cover overdue water and sewer bills for 1,448 households, according to the state Department of Community Affairs, which administers the program.

“It’s been a very slow rollout,” said Larry Levine, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has lobbied legislators to create a permanent water assistance program for low-income residents. “Application numbers are quite low, which is not reflective of the level of need.”

Residents who want to apply for New Jersey’s Low Income Household Water Assistance program can do so here. To be eligible, applicants’ total gross household income must be at or below 60% of the state median income ($6,439 a month for a family of four).

Almost 140,000 households are at least a month behind in paying more than $42.5 million in water bills, with nearly 60% of those arrearages at least four months overdue, according to the most recent state data from May. That’s up 23% from the $34.4 million residential customers owed in water arrearages a year earlier, the data shows. And that data is just from investor-owned systems, which serve 40% of the population, so actual arrearages likely are much higher.

Advocates blame rising unaffordability on the pandemic, inflation, and increasing costs of repairing aging water infrastructure.

Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan attributed the slow rollout to several “hurdles”:

Most municipal utilities haven’t agreed to participate and haven’t signed the required vendor and nondisclosure agreements.

Of nearly 600 water and sewer utilities, only 102 are participating.

Utilities have been slow to confirm residents’ outstanding balances, as required before the department can send payment.

The program has received applications from residents whose utility bills are in their landlord’s name, instead of theirs, as the program requires.

Ryan said her department has been reaching out to municipalities to encourage participation and joined webinars organized by advocacy groups targeting towns that haven’t yet signed up. The governor’s office recently joined that outreach, which has prodded more municipalities to opt in, she added.

Levine called utilities’ failure to participate especially concerning.

“That leaves everybody who’s served by a system that hasn’t signed up without the ability to access these funds,” he said.

Residents shouldn’t have to worry about water shutoffs over the winter if they can’t pay their bills — at least in theory.

Lawmakers in December directed the Department of Community Affairs to add customers of publicly owned water systems to the “Winter Termination Program,” which bars gas and electric shutoffs from Nov. 15 through March 15. Legislators set a 120-day deadline for the department to issue regulations establishing the program.

That deadline passed in April, but regulations still haven’t been proposed. Ryan said Wednesday the department expects to release those regulations next month.

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