Delinquent bills lead to 21K Dayton residents losing water service

TY GREENLEES / STAFF
TY GREENLEES / STAFF

More than 21,000 people in Dayton lost water service last year, and not because of outages from a burst pipe or the devastating tornadoes.

They were cut off for not paying their bills.

Dayton has added jobs and unemployment has fallen, but still far too many people are living paycheck to paycheck and are one job loss, medical emergency or unexpected life event away from losing the ability to pay bills for necessities like water, advocacy groups say.

“There’s thousands and thousands of people who are not experiencing this ‘great economy,’” said Lisa Stempler, interim president and CEO of Miami Valley Community Action Partnership.

City officials said shut-offs have fallen significantly compared to the recent past, and they credit the drop to expanded payment options and plans.

“We’ve been working to try to figure out how to make it easier, faster, better, more convenient for customers to pay, based on how they need to pay,” said C. LaShea Lofton, Dayton’s finance director.

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Life without clean water can be very inconvenient and stressful, as thousands of Dayton residents discovered when a pipe burst in the river a year ago, resulting in outages and a boil advisory.

Water service was disrupted again for thousands of customers when a record number of tornadoes ripped through the region on Memorial Day. Local residents complained about the hassle of drinking and cooking with bottled water and showering outside of the home.

But many people in Dayton know what it’s like to live without clean water because they fell behind on their bills and their water was turned off.

The city has shut off water service to more than 20,000 delinquent accounts in each of the past five years, including 21,061 in 2019.

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Losing water service is a health risk, because clean water is needed for drinking, cooking and bathing.

There's a story behind every disconnection, but some common themes are tough luck and hard times brought on by unexpected life events, said Brian Abram, emergency services director with Miami Valley Community Action Partnership, which can help residents with emergency utility assistance.

People get sick or hurt and end up in the hospital and get stuck with expensive medical bills.

Residents lose their jobs or only can find part-time or temp work, meaning they don’t have a steady paycheck.

Individuals, including caretakers, pregnant women and single mothers, sometimes have to take unpaid leave, causing money to get very tight.

Couples split or divorce, loved ones die or something else happens that causes households to lose an important source of income.

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Miami Valley CAP tries to help people who get behind on their bills and is one of the primary local providers of emergency utility assistance.

But the group has limited funds and resources and only can help a fraction of the people in the area who lose water service.

In 2018 and 2019, Miami Valley CAP spent about $45,160 to help 206 households in Montgomery and Greene counties that faced disconnection or had their water service shut off.

In those two years, Dayton had about 42,460 shut-offs, and many other households came close to losing service.

Last year, about 93,270 delinquent water accounts in the city received shut-off warnings.

Rich or poor, everyone has bills for things like rent, utilities, transportation, child care, groceries and medical care.

The difference is, many poor households do not have the same kinds of safety nets as wealthier people, who may be able to lean on family and friends or use their savings or credit cards when things get tough, Abram said.

Many people in Dayton have low incomes and constantly have to make hard decisions about how to spend their dollars, like what bills they have to pay now and what bills can wait, Abram said.

Paying the water bill may be less urgent than other priorities like rent, food, transportation to get work or keeping the lights on, he said.

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Poor money-management skills obviously can get people in trouble, but Abram said low-income people and families often are quite savvy at juggling their financial obligations because they have to be in order to survive.

Some people in the community likely have learned to live without water for stretches, said Jan Lepore-Jentleson, executive director of East End Community Services, which works to break the cycle of generational poverty in East Dayton.

“It’s very stressful to have to figure out what bills to pay and what not, and what you can go without,” she said. “People go without water all the time.”

Dayton’s water department offers payment plans and accepts payments from outside assistance agencies, like churches and service organizations.

But the city’s payment plans, and those of other local water providers, are much less flexible than plans offered by utility companies like Dayton Power & Light and Vectren, Abram said.

Dayton customers on a payment plan owe the full amount immediately if they miss one payment, he said.

Other utility providers offer plans based on a percentage of household income and provide incentives for on-time payments for backbills.

Dayton and other local government water providers should try to offer payment plans that allow for more negotiation, according to Miami Valley CAP staff.

But Dayton’s policies are fairly generous since they give customers about 58 to 60 days to pay a water bill before a shut-off notice is issued, said Lofton, Dayton’s finance director.

The city offers payment plans that can be spread over 12 months, said Lofton, who added that the city allows for some payment renegotiation based on circumstances.

Shutoffs have fallen considerably in recent years, which undoubtedly owes in some part to the city’s work to make it easier to pay water accounts, Lofton said.

There were 23,587 disconnections in 2014 and 27,566 in 2013.

Customers in past years had to visit City Hall to make a payment when they were in shut-off status, but now they can pay water bills online or by visiting any CVS Pharmacy or Family Dollar store, Lofton said.

The retail chains started accepting city water payments a couple of years ago.

Customers also can make water bill payments whenever it is convenient for them, whether that is weekly, monthly or quarterly, she said.

After the tornadoes, there was a beautiful outpouring of support and donations to help people who lost so much and need to rebuild their homes and lives, said Stempler, with Miami Valley CAP.

But there are many people locally who are living in desperate poverty and circumstances who do not get the kind of attention and community support they deserve, Stempler said.

Many people Miami Valley CAP serves prided themselves on being financially responsible and self-reliant their whole lives, but then they had bad luck and had nowhere else to turn, Stempler said.

“We hear this story all the time: ‘I’ve always paid my bills, I’ve never had to ask for a handout,’” Stempler said.

“We safety nets, we have places to go, we have families,” she said. “These folks don’t.”

Dayton water shutoffs

2019: 21,061

2018 21,400

2017 20,193

2016 21,618

2015 21,985

2014: 23,587

2013: 27,566

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