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Utility Commission Slashes PWSA's 2021 Rate Increase, Expands Shut Off Protections

Water flows from a sink faucet.
Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

More Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority customers will be protected from shutoffs this winter. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has approved a settlement that also cuts the PWSA’s proposed service rate increase in half.

The settlement will increase the typical PWSA residential customer's water and wastewater bill by 9.7%. The initial PWSA request would have increased bills by 19.1% in 2021 and another 6.26% in 2022. The change reduces the overall revenue increase from $43.8 million (requested in PWSA's initial filing for 2021) to $19 million. The multi-year rate plan, which had proposed an additional $12.6 million increase in 2022 was withdrawn.

The new rates will become effective for PWSA’s nearly 80,000 customers Jan. 14.

The PWSA has also expanded the eligibility for the winter shut off moratorium. Previously, ratepayers earning up to 250% of the federal poverty level (which is $31,900 for a single person household) could qualify. Now, ratepayers can still qualify if they earn up to 300% ($38,280 for a single person household) of the federal poverty level. The terms cite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as the reason for the expanded program.

Other pandemic-related relief measures included in the terms are:

  • Waiving reconnection fees through the end of the next rate case;
  • Performing targeted outreach to customers with existing debt;
  • Implementing expanded payment arrangement options or until 2022;
  • Continuing to expand outreach efforts with community partners and through collaboration with the Low-Income Assistance Advisory Committee; and
  • Waiving the Hardship Grant Program's payment effort requirements for one year from the date of the final order in this rate case, or until January 14, 2022. 

The PWSA will also pilot a debt-forgiveness program and create an outreach team to inform customers when they qualify for assistance with their water bills. The PWSA said hiring for that team will begin soon and outreach will begin in early 2021.
The settlement was submitted by the PUC’s Independent Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement, the Office of Consumer Advocate, the Office of Small Business Advocate, Pittsburgh UNITED, the City of Pittsburgh and the PWSA. The Commission approved the terms unanimously.

“At a time when people are facing economic hardship, it was really important for us to fight for these improvements,” said Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, executive director of Pittsburgh United.
Kennedy said the outreach effort will key in making sure more people take advantage of the PWSA’s assistance programs.

“Often these programs are underutilized and we want to make sure, especially in a pandemic, that people have access to safe, affordable water, she said. "They may not know they’re eligible for a program that can help them do that."

The substantially lower rate increase won’t affect mandated critical water infrastructure programs like lead line replacement, according to Rebecca Zito, PWSA’s acting senior manager of public affairs. But there will be cuts to the operating budget and some other planned projects will be pushed back.

“We are happy that we’ve been able to strike a balance to be able to continue to do the work that we need to do and continue to meet the needs of our ratepayers,” Zito said.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.