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Pittsburgh water utilities increase aid to low-income customers — but not equally

A Black woman looks into the cabinet under her kitchen sink.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Arthea Jetter's sink was leaking so badly she had to put a tub underneath it every time she did the dishes until a PWSA program paid a plumber to fix it.

By the time Arthea Jetter's sink started leaking, the Garfield resident was already having a hard time keeping her head above water.

Her sewage and water bill already consumed $240 of her monthly $1,200 disability check — a far bigger share of her income than the 4.5 percent the federal Environmental Protection Agency says is affordable. And the sink wasn't helping.

It kept on leaking and I was trying to figure it out but I couldn't,” she said. “And nowadays when plumbers come, they’re really expensive, like, they want almost $400 just to fix the little thing.”

She called up the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to work out an alternative payment arrangement. Instead, she was invited to participate in a pilot program that provides free plumbing help for low-income residents. The plumber was able to repair her sink at no cost to her. He also noticed her water pressure was too high, and fixed that too.

When Jetter received her next bill from PWSA, she said, the amount due had fallen from $240 to $114. “Whoa. $114! This can't be right,” she said she thought. “I called the lady and double-checked, and she said, ‘Yeah, that's right.’”

This pilot program at PWSA is one of the latest local efforts to support low-income water and sewage customers in the Pittsburgh area. The cost of providing water and sewage across the country has been increasing by more than triple the rate of inflation — and that cost is increasing even faster in the Pittsburgh area, as the region undertakes generational infrastructure improvements. In the city itself, these improvements include replacing lead drinking water pipes, doubling the capacity of its main sewage-treatment plant and building a backup drinking water system to prevent large-scale disruptions.

PWSA has become a local leader in finding customers like Jetter and helping to make their bills more affordable. Some other water utilities, like Pennsylvania American Water, have recently improved their efforts to help low-income customers as well. On the other hand, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority's program to help low-income customers has become less generous, and less widely used, since it was established in 2017. And most of the smaller public water utilities, like Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority, still don’t offer assistance at all.

A Black woman stands inside her kitchen.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Arthea Jetter said her bill went down by more than $100 per month after a plumber fixed a leak in her sink and lowered her water pressure.

Without these programs, customers like Jetter can be forced to make difficult choices.

“We have to remember that there is a section of the population that are struggling to survive,” said Julie Mechling, the director of customer service at PWSA. “And it comes down to them deciding whether or not they're going to pick up their medication that their doctor prescribed or pay a medical bill or eat versus paying for water.”

"Nobody likes to feel as though they're falling behind"

Low-income assistance programs have existed for years in Allegheny County, but they often simply included a lump-sum discount for customers who fell behind on their bills. Now, some utilities provide significant customer discounts and additional assistance to help customers get caught up when they fall behind. The plumbing program Jetter participated in is one of the first in the state to offer not just financial assistance, but direct help in a customer's home.

On a recent February morning, Sarah Hall, an analyst with PWSA’s “Cares Team,” talked on the phone with a local school teacher whose water debts had grown to more than $2,000 because of water that had been running in his basement.

Because of his family size, the customer was considered low-income. He'd already signed up for PWSA’s bill discount program, which saves him $40 per month and provides 1,000 gallons of water for free. Hall signed him up for a payment plan that gave him an additional $40 credit on his bill each time he makes a payment on his debt. Hall also notified him of additional help he could get by applying to two other programs.

A Black woman wearing a headset with a microphone sits at a computer.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Sarah Hall, a member of PWSA's Cares Team, helps a customer who fell behind on his bill get set up on a payment plan.

Last year Julie Mechling, PWSA’s director of customer service, set a goal to sign up 7,000 customers — 1,000 more than the previous year's target. “Not all of our customers are going to be able to bear the rates that we need to be able to replace the 100-year-old infrastructure,” she said.

Mechling is pushing the Cares Team to sign up more customers, because PWSA surveys show thousands of potentially eligible customers still don’t know about its assistance programs. The Cares Team has already begun making outbound phone calls “in mass” to customers asking them if they want to sign up, Mechling said. There are plans to start text-messaging customers as well.

In February, PWSA expanded who is eligible for its assistance programs from 150% of the poverty level to 200%. That's made thousands of additional customers eligible for discounts.

“Nobody likes to feel as though they're falling behind and not contributing,” Mechling said. “So our customer assistance programs also provide people with a way that they can pay at a rate that's affordable and manageable for them, so they can continue being contributing members of society.

‘The program wasn't where we thought it should be’

But there is a portion of PWSA’s bill that many customers aren't receiving discounts on: their sewage treatment. The PWSA customer Hall spoke to was one of more than 5,000 customers who had signed up for PWSA’s bill discount program but not for ALCOSAN’s low-income assistance program. Doing so would save him an additional $180 per year.

To get a discount from ALCOSAN, he would have to reach out to one of the local organizations that helps administer its assistance program. “I gave him two organizations to reach out to,” Hall said. “So I don't see why he wouldn't be able to complete the application and get the grant.

But some data suggests that even as PWSA has increased its outreach, ALCOSAN has not kept pace. In 2019, both ALCOSAN and PWSA had a similar number of low-income customers signed up — between 2,500 and 3,000. But in the past five years PWSA has more than doubled its signups, while ALCOSAN’s participants have trickled off to just 1,700.

A white man wearing a headset with a microphone sits in front of a computer in an open office.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Collin Farrone can sign up PWSA customers directly to its own bill discount program. But to get a discount from ALCOSAN, Farrone has to refer customers to a different phone number to set up an in-person appointment.

Karen Fantoni, ALCOSAN’s director of finance, said ALCOSAN relies on the Dollar Energy Fund to administer its low-income assistance program because it doesn’t want to collect customer information, such as social security numbers or proof of income.

Jody Robertson, the director of communications at Dollar Energy, said a more robust effort at signing up customers is not currently part of its contract with ALCOSAN.

“We don't have anything in our contract to necessarily do a broader community outreach,” she said.

Many customers who used to sign up for both PWSA and ALCOSAN’s programs at the same time aren't being captured now that PWSA does so much work in-house. At least partly as a result, ALCOSAN’s program enrollment fell by a third last year, according to Fantoni.

“We determined that the program wasn't where we thought it should be this year,” Fantoni said. “And so we are working very hard at communicating and getting the message out and remarketing that program so that we get the people who are eligible to be able to benefit from that program.”

Even as ALCOSAN is helping fewer customers, its rates have become increasingly burdensome. In 2017, the average customer who signed up for low-income assistance paid $240 for sewage treatment: This year that same customer will pay $448 — an 87% increase, three times faster than the overall rate of inflation. Low-income customers in large households can pay much more.

ALCOSAN does not set internal goals for how many customers it plans to sign up every year, Fantoni said: “We would like to see everybody who's eligible to have the opportunity to participate.”

Some other differences create additional friction for ALCOSAN customers. PWSA allows customers to email or text in proof of their income to receive discounts, but Dollar Energy typically requires customers to sign up in person. PWSA only requires customers to recertify their income every two years, while ALCOSAN requires recertification every year.

Each local water utility pays ALCOSAN directly, and then bills its customers to recoup the sewage costs. That means Alcosan is paid in full even when customers fall behind on their bills. PWSA, for one, paid ALCOSAN $7.7 million more than it collected between 2018 and 2022.

A white man with grey hair stands in front of a construction site.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Douglas Jackson, the director of operations and maintenance at ALCOSAN, stands in front of one of the construction sites that will allow the authority to double its treatment capacity.

Douglas Jackson, ALCOSAN’s longtime director of operations and maintenance, said it’s harder to get customers signed up for ALCOSAN’s program because many customers don’t know they’re paying for sewage treatment at all.

“When you're not sending the bills out and you don't have that individual customer contact with folks, it makes it a little bit more challenging for us than it does other entities,” Jackson said.

Jackson said ALCOSAN is planning to work with Dollar Energy to do a better job signing up more customers. But he said it could be a challenge to partner with some water utilities to promote ALCOSAN’s assistance program.

“If I lived in that area, I would say, ‘[I]f ALCOSAN is providing a customer assistance program, why aren't you also providing a similar type program?’” he said “So I can understand how some municipalities might be a little bit hesitant to promote a program that they themselves don't have.

‘The final level of affordability’

Most small and medium-sized public water utilities don't have assistance programs. Gabby Gray, an organizer for Pittsburgh United, said that's because the Public Utility Commission doesn't regulate publicly-owned water utilities, so they don't have to directly negotiate rates. PWSA is an exception as a result of concerns about a number of service problems a decade ago. Its low-income programs, like those of Penn American, have become more generous over time through PUC negotiations.

Gray said her organization has been working for more than two years to pressure one of the region's largest public systems, the Wilkinsburg Penn Joint Water Authority, into creating a low-income assistance program.

“We canvassed. We knocked on doors. We had events. We did protests. We went up to the board meetings,” she said.

That work may be about to pay off. At the authority’s Tuesday board meeting, members unanimously approved creating an agreement with Dollar Energy Fund to administer the program. A final agreement will still have to be approved by the board, said executive director Doug Komandt. It will probably take a few months to have a program available to customers, he said.

“We just know that there’s a big delinquency problem that we have here, and we’d like to hopefully help out a little bit, to help people so they can keep their water on,” he said.

Ria Pereira, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, advocates on behalf of customers before the PUC. And she said that the gold standard for bill discount programs would be for utilities to ensure that no customers have to pay more than they can afford. Both PWSA and Pennsylvania American have taken steps in this direction by providing additional assistance to the lowest-income residents — those who make 50% of the poverty level or less.

“It really gets at what you want the final level of affordability to be rather than, for example, credit that is applied to a person's monthly bill, at the top of the bill,” Pereria said.

While the costs of low-income assistance programs typically make up a tiny portion of a utility’s budget, they are ultimately paid for by ordinary ratepayers. But during the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government provided additional assistance to low-income drinking water customers, which decreased this burden. PWSA said 58% fewer customers were subject to shut-off notices in 2023, after it distributed more than $2 million in additional federal assistance.

For many years, the federal government has provided help to low-income customers with their electric and gas bills — not to mention, housing, healthcare and other essentials. This was the first federal program to help drinking water customers, but like other pandemic aid, it was only temporary.

People sit at computers in an open office call center.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
The Cares team has helped PWSA lead the region in the percentage of its low-income customers it has signed up for ongoing discounts.

Gary Lobaugh, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania American Water, said the utility distributed $8 million in federal aid to customers across the state before the funding ran out.

“That was $8 million that kept people out of arrears,” he said. “That was $8 million that preserved service and peace of mind.”

In the meantime, Pennsylvania American Water has proposed increasing its own low-income discount program eligibility to 250% of the poverty level. That would be the most expansive assistance program in Allegheny County, and would make an additional 55,000 customers eligible for assistance across Pennsylvania, Lobaugh said. The proposal was made as part of the company’s negotiation with the PUC to buy the Butler Area Sewer Authority Wastewater System.

The company had already increased the generosity of its low-income assistance program in the last couple of years, expanding its long-time hardship grant program to include a program that provides monthly discounts. Its low-income customers are now eligible for an ongoing discount between 25% and 80%.

Lobaugh said that Pennsylvania American Water has enrolled about 7,400 of its customers in Allegheny County, which is about 5% of its ratepayers. That’s a lower rate than PWSA, but more than triple that of ALCOSAN.

Like ALCOSAN, Pennsylvania American uses Dollar Energy to administer its low-income assistance program. But Pennsylvania American customers can sign up for assistance over the phone and online rather than in-person.

Lobaugh said the company also held five events in Allegheny County in 2023 and was able to sign up an additional 250 customers. Labough said Penn American is looking for nontraditional ways of reaching out to customers, like partnering with local food banks and pantries.

“Most times when a customer lands with the Dollar Energy Fund or a social-service organization, they're already in arrears,” he said. “What we want to do is have an intervention early enough with the customer to let them know that there are options before they end up going down this path of utility insecurity.”

Reporter Kate Giammarise contributed to this story.

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.