Brenda Walker has come to dread the days she finds a sewer and water bill in her mailbox.
The 62-year-old Lincoln Heights widow is on a strict budget and it seems the quarterly bill often does a good job of blowing her allowance.
At the beginning of last year, Walker counted on her quarterly statement costing her $125. But she noticed her bill began to climb significantly around June, the month before her husband passed away. The county also raised sewer rates 6 percent last year.
Walker, who is on a fixed income and reliant on social security payments, has been unable to keep up with sewer bills that have cost her upwards of $190 within the last year. The sewer portion of Walker’s bill makes up a bulk – between 70 and 72 percent – of the quarterly statement, according to documents Walker showed WCPO Insider.
“When I budget $125 and I’ve got to pay $200, that’s $75 over my budget,” Walker said. “That might have been money I had for the Duke (Energy) bill, or groceries, or something.”
While city and county officials – who both claim ownership of the Metropolitan Sewer District – have quibbled over who’s at fault for rising sewer rates, some county residents, like Walker, have struggled to keep up with skyrocketing payments in recent years.
‘It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago’
City officials, who operate the sewer district, and county commissioners, who approve sewer rates and budgets, seem to agree on just one thing: Rising rates are a problem for bill payers. The average homeowner in Hamilton County pays nearly $800 a year for sewer services, an amount that has jumped 128 percent within the last decade.
Yet, as rates continued to climb, neither Cincinnati City Council nor the Hamilton County Commission established any type of formal payment program or assistance for the poorest of residents.
In fact, Hamilton County is home to the state’s only major city without a program to aid needy homeowners with their sewer payments.
Mark Lawson, a managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society, found that out while serving on the county’s sewer rate affordability task force, which will release initial recommendations in a report that comes out Wednesday.
“It was sort of a surprise that a place like Akron could pull this off and that we couldn’t pull it off,” Lawson said. “It’s something that should have happened a long time ago. People have been struggling to pay these bills for a long time.”
Federal aid programs help people pay some utility costs, including high gas or electric bills in the winter. But no program is available for someone like Walker to get help with a whopper of a sewer bill, which is typically the most expensive part of a water and sewer statement.
The Legal Aid Society has advocated for the county to offer a one-time, $300 sewer credit for people who have fallen on a sudden hardship, such as a job loss or home foreclosure. They also hope the county would consider offering a yearly discount on sewer bills for people who make a little less than double the federal poverty line; for a family of four that’s $48,500.
The rate affordability task force plans to recommend county commissioners establish their own sewer bill assistance program. But before anyone gets help paying their sewer bill, the county commissioners will need to sign off on the program.
Hamilton County Commission President Chris Monzel said in an interview this week he wants the county to offer help to needy residents, but he wants rate payers to finance that program voluntarily. Monzel said rate payers could donate money for such a program on their sewer bill.
Duke Energy, for example, allows customers to donate money for people struggling to pay their bills through a program called “Heat Share,” Monzel pointed out.
“We want to establish something similar to that, to let people be able to contribute to help out those that aren’t able to pay their bill,” Monzel said.
Since the program would rely on voluntary contribution, Monzel said it's unlikely needy residents would benefit from it until next year.
Is Relief on the Way?
City leaders are considering one move that could provide a little relief for low-income residents coping with rising sewer rates.
Greater Cincinnati Water Works handles sewer and water, billing included, for most all Cincinnati and most Hamilton County residents. Bills are sent to residents every three months, which can make it hard for people to budget for increasing sewer statements.
The rate affordability task force has recommended sewer bills come out every month, a change the task force's chairman, Tom Moeller, doesn't expect will cost Water Works significantly. Moeller is also the city manager of Madeira.
"Having a monthly bill is more affordable because it's easier to budget and pay on time," Moeller said.
Walker, for example, pays what she can when her sewer bill is unexpectedly high, taking a small late fee – typically around $2 – and waits until the first of the month, when she gets paid, to deal with the rest. Water Works charges a 10 percent late fee for past due bills.
“I just paid half of it and just believed that I could make the other half the next month,” Walker said of last quarter’s bill. “That’s all I could do.”
A monthly sewer statement means she's not taken by surprise with a huge bill every three months and can pay smaller amounts at a time. Walker has tried to work out payment plans with the city before, but they only offered a 30-day extension for her to pay her bill, she said.
If you need helping paying your sewer bill, contact Greater Cincinnati Water Works at 513-591-7700 to see if you qualify for a payment extension.
The city has a five-day grace period for payments and does grant 30-day extensions for some customers, but it's dependent on the person’s payment history. Also, Water Works will allow customers to pay a bill in installments if a down payment is made, according to Rocky Merz, a spokesman for the city.
But no information on the payment plans is available on the city’s website.
“It’s not that easy and it’s not that well advertised,” Lawson said of the city’s installment plans. “What we’re proposing is that (a monthly payment) should be the norm.”
Roughly 30 percent of customers are unable to pay their accounts by the due date, or within the five-day grace period.
Merz said the city is considering a monthly bill payment and studying the cost associated with such a change.
Monzel said the commission has been working with the city for more than a year to change the way Water Works charges rate payers. It’s also a change the rate affordability task force says would help county residents pay their rising bills.
“It doesn’t make sense that we can’t do it,” Monzel said of monthly billing. “It’s not a city-versus-county thing. We have to think about the rate payer. They’re the ones who are going to be paying for this forever.”