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Need help paying your PWSA bill? This outreach team can help

PWSA truck in parking lot.jpg
90.5 WESA
Look for the PWSA Cares team at famers' markets around Pittsburgh.

It’s a late summer Friday at the North Side Farmers Market in Allegheny Commons Park.

Amid large baskets of corn, peaches and tomatoes, there’s a table under a small tent for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

Behind stacks of PWSA coloring books, refrigerator magnets and chip clips, Rebecca Copney and Ruth Walker are greeting shoppers and anyone passing by.

“Do you have us for your water or sewer company? We have information for you on grant programs that we have.”

“We have programs we offer for bill discount, for grants. I can give you some information.”

Copney and Walker are part of a new PWSA unit — known as the Cares team — dedicated to getting more customers enrolled in the agency’s assistance programs for low-income households.

Getting the word out is important because of the agency’s rate hikes in the last several years — which have increased customers’ bills — but also because all of PWSA’s assistance programs are relatively recent. None of the programs existed prior to 2018, and enrollment was initially somewhat slow. (The authority has said the rate hikes are needed to fix aging infrastructure, in part because of many years of underinvestment.)

“We get a lot of surprised customers because a lot of people say, ‘Hey, we haven't heard of your programs or we didn't even know you had a Cares team,” Copney said.

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PWSA offers multiple forms of assistance for income-qualified customers:

  • the bill discount program, which discounts both the minimum fixed charge for low-income residential customers, as well as the volumetric charges
  • the hardship cash assistance program, which helps pay off arrears
  • a winter moratorium on shutoffs
  • the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP), a temporary, pandemic-related, statewide water assistance program that can forgive up to $2,500 in water and $2,500 in wastewater bills

The Cares team grew out of feedback from a low-income advisory group convened by PWSA several years ago.
“We kept hearing over and over how we needed to be in the community. We needed to meet people where they were,” said Julie Mechling, director of customer service for PWSA.

Authority officials believe there’s roughly 20,000 customers who would potentially be eligible for its aid programs, based on a pre-pandemic estimate using 2010 Census data, Mechling said. Enrollment in these programs is now roughly 5,600, she said—still far from reaching everyone who is eligible, but it has doubled since the Cares team started.

“We're taking this program really seriously and putting the resources behind it to make sure that we're effective,” PWSA CEO Will Pickering said.

Advocates say they’re pleased to see the growth of the Cares team, but want to see further enrollment in aid programs. They’ve been pushing to streamline the application process.

“From our standpoint, everyone that is eligible should be enrolled in these programs,” said Anna Coleman, environmental justice organizer at Pittsburgh United. “So, it's definitely pretty significantly short of where we ultimately want to see this.” Her organization would like to see a more streamlined enrollment process, and perhaps eventually even some form of universal application. Such an application would allow a resident to apply only once to receive utility aid from PWSA as well as their gas and electric companies, something that currently involves multiple applications.

Generally speaking, a high “administrative burden” – things such as paperwork, income verification, office visits and time required to enroll and stay enrolled – tends to drive down participation in assistance programs, said Manny Teodoro, an associate professor at the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin. (Many water utilities don’t have aid programs, and such programs tend to be more recent among those places that do have them, said Teodoro.)

In July, state regulators approved changes that are expected to make it easier for more people to enroll in PWSA aid programs, particularly renters, who will be able to directly apply for aid without going through their landlord. The changes were part of the final step for the authority to come under the oversight of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, as a 2018 state law required.

One person who stops by the farmers market booth on this particular Friday is Pittsburgher Yasmin Guy. She had heard of the LIHWAP program, but found out she was likely eligible for other assistance as well.

“I really appreciate all the information,” she said.

Copney and Walker are handling lots of other utility requests beyond just letting people know about available assistance.

One man approaches the tent and asks about getting the lead levels in his water lines checked.

One woman asks them about an issue with a shared bill between her apartment and another unit in the same building.

Another woman passing by loudly asks them if the PWSA will be increasing her bill again soon.

“If they do,” Copney responds, “we’re here to help.”

More information about PWSA customer assistance programs is available here. You can also call Dollar Energy Fund at 866-762-2348 to see if you qualify or to enroll.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at kgiammarise@wesa.fm or 412-697-2953.