After months without service shut-offs for unpaid bills, the Charleston Sanitary Board might restart the practice in October, according to general manager Steve Cooper.
The utility suspended shut-offs in March, as thousands of people in the state took economic blows from the COVID-19 pandemic. Those behind on bills have until Oct. 13 to pay them or work with the sanitary board on payments before the shut-off process begins again.
“The letter we sent out this week is not a formal termination notice,” Cooper said. “It is a reminder that that process may begin again in the near future, and was also a reminder that there is assistance available for those who need it.”
Cooper said it’s not definitive that shut-offs will start again, but he wants customers to be aware, in case it does happen.
“I want to emphasize the ‘may,’ ” Cooper said. “We may resume the termination process on Oct. 13.”
In March, the West Virginia Public Service Commission requested that utility operators in the state to abstain from service shut-offs except for emergencies as thousands of residents lost their jobs and sources of income because of pandemic-related shutdowns.
In July, the PSC lifted the request but told utilities to continue tracking their expenses during COVID-19 so they could be used in future rate cases to explain revenue losses or other issues with applications.
The CSB has continued voluntarily deferring shut-offs, Cooper said, but now it wants to help residents where it can and ensure people aren’t facing potential debt from the unpaid bills.
“We’re at a point now where we’re more concerned about our customers getting into a deeper hole financially than our own revenue,” Cooper said. “The longer the accounts aren’t being paid, the higher the balance becomes. We don’t want people facing a mountain here at the end of the day; we don’t want them to dig a hole they can’t get out of.”
If residents do need help with utility payments, or are facing a shut-off notice, they can call the United Way’s 24/7 hotline, at 211, and get connected with assistance.
The sanitary board also has an option for deferred-payment agreements, which people can learn more about by calling the utility, at 304-348-8136.
Customer bills are the only source of income for many utilities in West Virginia. If they don’t bring that money in, they could struggle to continue operating, as water treatment and delivery can be expensive.
While that’s true for the sanitary board, Cooper said it isn’t their real concern at this moment. Unlike smaller utilities in the state, Charleston’s sanitary board serves a steady customer base of about 23,000 residents, according to annual reports filed with the PSC. For the past five years, too, the utility has brought in about $23 million annually in revenue, and it’s not facing overwhelming debt like other utilities, according to financial statements.
Cooper said the utility wants to keep water service for as many people as possible for as long as it can during the pandemic.
“The most important factor that we weighed is that hand washing is so important right now,” Cooper said. “We did not want to stop the flow of water for folks who simply needed to wash their hands, stay clean and stay healthy during all of this.”
Sewage fees are based on water consumption, so if sewage bills aren’t paid, water service is terminated.
For sanitary board customers, the shut-off process begins with customers receiving a termination letter in the mail, Cooper said. That is followed by calls from either the sanitary board, or the water company, warning of service termination if a payment isn’t received by a certain date. The final warning is a shut-off notice.
For a full list of agencies that help with utility payments in Kanawha County, visit http://www.cad.state.wv.us/BillAssistance.pdf.