The city of Dayton Water Department cut off water service to 22,915 customers in 2014, a 16 percent decline from 2013.
The reductions coincide with improvements in the local economy, including a plunging unemployment rate. But changes in payment options and billing in Dayton also played a role.
Still, elevated numbers of households are losing or at risk of losing a service that is essential for everyday living and personal health, said advocates for the poor.
“Families are struggling, and the only way they can make ends meet and put food on the table is to let things like utility bills slide,” said Jan Lepore-Jentleson, executive director of East End Community Services, a nonprofit that helps low-income residents in east Dayton.
The city of Dayton Water Department provides service to about 60,000 metered accounts.
Last year, the city shut off water service to 22,914 customers, 4,315 fewer than in 2013 and the first decline since 2010, city data show.
The numbers are going down partly because the city installed automatic meters in place of estimated bills and because it offers online payment options, said LaShea Smith, the city’s director of finance.
Montgomery County Environmental Services has about 80,000 water and sewer accounts, serving about 200,000 people.
Last year, the agency performed 6,800 disconnections, down from 7,718 in 2013. Disconnections rose from 2,334 in 2010 to 9,297 in 2012.
“Water is something that people need every day, so (disconnection is) a serious situation,” said Patrick Turnbull, the director of Environmental Services.
Residents often struggle to pay utility bills because of low wages, underemployment, job loss or financial woes tied to life events, such as divorce, medical problems or the death of a loved one, according to anti-poverty groups.
Banking experts say people have a hierarchy of bills, and when they are short of money, they usually pay first the ones that threaten their lifestyle, said Lucia Dunn, an Ohio State University economics professor.
“So if your car will be repossessed if you are 30 days late, you will be sure to pay that one,” she said.
But the local economy performed better in 2014. Unemployment in the region fell to the lowest level in decades.
In Dayton, accounts are considered delinquent if they have an unpaid balance 30 days after an invoice is created. City customers have about 59 to 65 days from a billing date to service termination.
Environmental Services reads meters and issues bills quarterly.
County customers have 21 days from the billing date to make a payment or the account becomes delinquent and a late charge is assessed.
Customers are then issued a shut-off notice and have 20 days to make a payment before their service will be terminated.
About 95 percent of the time, customers whose service is terminated pay their past-due amount and have it reconnected the same day, Turnbull said. The average delinquent amount was about $237 last year.
The city and county offer payment plans for some customers who are struggling.
“If you are behind on your water bill, the best thing you can do is contact our staff here early,” Turnbull said.
Turnbull said charitable organizations — including churches and the Salvation Army — provide some residents with utility-payment assistance.
In 2014, the United Way of the Greater Dayton Area’s HelpLink 2-1-1 staff provided 702 referrals for water bill payment assistance to residents in Montgomery, Greene and Preble counties, said Sandy Williams, director of the local HelpLink 2-1-1.
United Way also received 679 requests from residents who were ineligible to receive assistance from the programs, she said.
Unfortunately, there is limited water-payment assistance available even though the service is an important and basic household necessity, said Lepore-Jentleson. She said many families do not meet the criteria for aid.
East End used to help about 750 families each year with case management for utility assistance, but the organization’s funding was redirected, she said.
“Right now, there is very little support out there for families who just need help paying their bills,” Lepore-Jentleson said. “We get people calling here all the time begging for some help.”
Cash-strapped residents often delay paying their bills as long as possible, which can backfire if they are forced to pay late fees or re-connection fees, Lepore-Jentleson said.
Montgomery County customers must pay $42.65 to have their water and sewer service turned back on.
Montgomery County last year also sent out 3 percent fewer delinquency warnings to residents and businesses.
People become delinquent for a many reasons, including oversight and losing track of a bill.
Louise Doorley, 91, who lives in Centerville, was issued two delinquent warnings in the last year. She said she had no idea she was late on her payments, but she went on vacation and was hospitalized briefly, and may have missed a notice.
“I am never delinquent and I always pay my bills,” she said.