by Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor
Almost 150,000 households in New Jersey owe nearly $45 million in unpaid water bills, but they can’t access federal aid that absolves arrearages because most of the state’s utilities don’t participate in the assistance program.
So a Democratic state lawmaker from Camden County aims to fix that by setting new rules and penalties for utilities that resist joining a federally funded program that offers financial assistance to low-income residents.
Under a bill sponsored by Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, water companies that don’t participate in the program would be prohibited from shutting off service or placing liens on the properties of low-income customers for nonpayment. Utilities also would be required to inform customers of the program on water bills and their websites.
Violators would face fines of $500 for every day an overdue customer’s service is shut off and $100 for every time they fail to communicate the customer’s eligibility for the program.
Only 118 of nearly 600 water and sewer companies in New Jersey participate in the program, according to Cruz-Perez’s office. Customers can’t receive aid unless their utilities enroll in the program.
With such little buy-in, only $1.2 million of the $24 million available in the American Rescue Plan-funded program has been dispersed to less than 1,500 households, according to Cruz-Perez’s office.
There is some urgency to her bill, as the assistance program is set to expire next September.
“The hard times continue for many low-income families and working people who struggled to make it through the pandemic and continue to struggle to make ends meet,” said Cruz-Perez, who chairs the Senate’s economic growth committee. “They shouldn’t be forced to choose between food on the table or paying their water bills when there is a program designed to help. The utilities should be actively working to increase participation so the available assistance can get into the hands of those who need it.”
The bill would direct the state Department of Community Affairs, which runs the program, and the Board of Public Utilities to notify water companies of the new rules and penalties.
More than 148,000 households are almost $45 million behind in their water bills, with about 55% of them at least four months overdue, according to the most recent state data from July. Arrearages are up 14% from the same time last year, the numbers show.
The data is just from investor-owned systems, which serve 40% of the population, so actual arrearages likely are much higher.
Evelyn Liebman, director of advocacy for AARP New Jersey, said her group has been urging all municipal water and wastewater authorities to participate in the program, saying it would help many consumers avoid or perhaps satisfy tax liens and keep their water running.
“No eligible consumer should be left behind and without access to this assistance because their utility provider is not participating in the program,” she said.
Cruz-Perez’s bill comes as the state last week began prohibiting utility shutoffs until March 15 for low-income customers who get public assistance under a new “winter termination program.” That program also protects people who can’t pay their bills due to circumstances like unemployment, illness, or medical expenses.
These protections previously only applied to electric and gas customers. Gov. Phil Murphy signed the new water protections into law last December. Cruz-Perez also sponsored that legislation.
Murphy signed another law in September requiring the state to examine how the pandemic worsened water and utility affordability. Even before the pandemic, about a fifth of New Jersey households had trouble paying their water and sewer bills.