This is the final piece in a three-part series looking at the state of water affordability in Cleveland, Philadelphia and beyond, authored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative in partnership with Resolve Philly in Philadelphia. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.
It might seem counterintuitive when programs that give people with low incomes a discount on their utility bills don’t have 100% enrollment. These programs are money-savers, after all. Who wouldn’t want that?
But in fact, it’s rare to have even a majority of eligible customers enrolled in these programs. That’s according to Manny Teodoro, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Teodoro’s one of the few researchers in the U.S. who studies water-bill discount programs and water affordability.
“The most famous utility assistance program in the country is LIHEAP,” Teodoro said, referring to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. “It’s been around for over 40 years now and historically it’s had an average participation rate of 16%.”
In contrast, the San Antonio Water System has almost 50% enrollment of eligible customers in its mainline discount program. It’s a substantial achievement worth exploring, especially considering that most of Cleveland and Philadelphia’s water discount programs don’t have enrollments close to that number.
Greg Wukasch, external affairs manager for the San Antonio Water System, traces the relatively high enrollment rate in the discount program – part of a suite of assistance programs called Uplift – back to a decision early on to create an external affairs team.
The team of eight, including Wukasch, spends much of its time doing community outreach. Seven team members are bilingual in English and Spanish, an important qualification given that roughly 60% of San Antonio’s population is Latino. Several of those team members also used the discount programs in the past, so they better understand the struggles of the families who need that help, Wukasch added.
“We hire them with the understanding and idea… that they are going to be at community events, at senior citizen centers, at council district offices, signing up families for our program,” he said. “(We are) not building a call center, then asking people to call us.”
Both the city of Cleveland and city of Philadelphia do have customer service teams, although they for the most part concentrate on billing rather than getting more people enrolled in the discount programs.
However, it’s hard to know much more about Cleveland’s practices. In the past year, the city of Cleveland has declined multiple requests to interview water and utility department leaders, both under current Mayor Justin Bibb and former Mayor Frank Jackson.
Cleveland Councilman Brian Kazy and city spokespeople have consistently pushed out the message about payment plans the city offers, but those arrangements require people to pay part of their outstanding balance on top of their monthly bill, leading to higher monthly bills for residents who are already struggling.
Susan Crosby, deputy revenue commissioner for water with the city of Philadelphia, said her city heavily utilizes community partners to get the word out about its discount program, as well as the water department’s communications team. Crosby added that the city brings along discount-program employees during in-person and online outreach to help get people signed up. Plus, there are some regular in-person sites where the city and its partners help walk people through the application.
Outside of the mainline water discount programs, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Cleveland and other cities typically offer additional programming for residents with low incomes. These other programs either provide discounts to unique groups of people – like the elderly – or help customers pay for repairs and efficiency upgrades on their property to reduce leaks and thus their water bills.
San Antonio, however, offers an additional program that Cleveland and Philadelphia do not: Project Agua, a donor-funded emergency relief program. Wukasch said that program provides a small amount twice a year – $230 total – that can help people who have already exhausted other assistance options.
Teodoro said it can be hard for cities to fund additional assistance programs, so looking to federal dollars or donor funds can be a smart way to help low-income residents with their water bills.
How easy is it to apply?
Wukasch said he also thinks San Antonio has high participation in its water discount program because the city has streamlined the application process. Customers only need to fill out one application to determine whether they’re eligible for 14 different assistance programs.
Simplifying the application also has another benefit.
“If you can speed that process up to qualify customers, that frees up your staff, not having to physically go through every application that comes in,” Wukasch said.
The city is also exploring how to automate processing of those applications, to allow even more time for staff to get out into the community to do outreach.
Wukasch said he doesn’t think that an online-only application will leave behind people who aren’t digitally literate. People who aren’t great with computers call in for assistance filling out an application online, or show up to their City Council representative’s office hours – where members of Wukasch’s team have iPads and computers to sign people up.
Philadelphia has made similar improvements to its application process for its water assistance programs, moving to a single application as well (although it still requires people to recertify their income each year).
Cleveland, meanwhile, has two separate application streams for its water and sewer assistance programs. Most of them are available through an online application with local nonprofit CHN Housing Partners, but there’s also the Homestead Water and Sewer Discount program, which the city administers. That program requires people to mail in a single-form application.
What else can be done?
Crystal M.C. Davis, vice president of policy and strategic engagement for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said water affordability has been a growing concern in the Cleveland area, especially since the formation of the Greater Cleveland Water Equity Partners group.
That’s a group consisting of the various players in the local water and sewer world, including the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and the Cleveland Water Department.
The Alliance for the Great Lakes and the Ohio Environmental Council commissioned a study in 2019 that looked at the topic of water affordability broadly in Ohio. Teodoro, the University of Wisconsin associate professor, is the study’s author.
The study suggested several approaches to achieving water affordability. In rural areas, one suggestion involves consolidating different water utilities to improve buying power, to improve infrastructure without significantly increasing individual customers’ rates. That approach has some merit considering that, according to the study, Ohio has 1,187 individual water utilities and 923 sewer treatment facilities, almost 74% of which are serving populations of fewer than 3,300 people.
For both urban and rural areas, another suggestion is to change rate structures, reducing the cost of water for lower-volume users like residential customers and increasing cost for higher-volume users like businesses.
But what about making it easier to access assistance programs that are already out there? As covered previously in this series, Cleveland’s Homestead Water discount program has a very high rate of participation, possibly because it requires very little paperwork.
Teodoro said “there’s no question” that reducing administrative burdens in utility assistance programs will increase participation.
“We know that from decades of research on other kinds of programs like SNAP and Social Security” he said. “… The problem, of course, is you worry about folks who are participating who really don’t qualify.”
And Teodoro said it only takes a single high-profile case of fraud within an assistance program to put a program in “political trouble.” So some utilities are understandably hesitant, he said, to move toward “self-certification,” where customers are only required to say they qualify and not to back those claims up with documentation.
Is there political appetite for ‘water for all?’
The study mentioned above did list another potential solution: a statewide assistance program for water bills. To date, California is the only state that has such a program in operation. Teodoro wrote in the study that such programs require “careful policy design and investment in administrative capacity,” as well as a significant amount of money to fund the benefit itself.
The Ohio Environmental Council and the Alliance for the Great Lakes both championed the “Water for All” act in the Ohio Legislature back in 2020, a bill meant to provide new relief to all Ohioans struggling to deal with their water bills.
You can read the legislative analysis of that bill here.
That bill would have done several things:
Set a sliding-scale for water rates and fees, based on a person’s income, not to exceed 4.5% of a person’s income.
Require water utilities to put people on an “affordable and attainable” payment plan if they’re behind on bills. If they make a payment each month for 24 months, they have their debt forgiven.
Prohibit shutoff of water services for people who are behind on bills.
Prevents liens from being placed on customers’ homes for failure to pay water bills.
Sound familiar? Minus the shutoff moratorium, Philadelphia’s TAP program is much the same as this proposed program.
But Water for All never went far in Ohio. Former Ohio State Rep. Erica Crawley, was the sponsor of the Water for All bill. She said the pandemic and difficult discussions around the state budget pushed the issue out of the forefront. t, plus, In addition, she was no longer able to advocate for its passage after she was appointed as a Franklin County Commissioner.
Crawley, a Democrat, said she thought of the issue of water affordability as a “bipartisan” issue, and noted that the bill’s first hearing was not contentious. However, the Republican-dominated Ohio Legislature doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to lowering barriers for low-income residents to access benefits.
Davis, with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said there needs to be greater awareness of water affordability issues.
“I think there is some education work to be done on both sides of the aisle to make sure state legislators understand how these issues impact their districts (both urban and rural),” Davis said.
Crawley said the bill’s language simply needs to be updated for a new legislative session, and to have a new champion now that she’s no longer a state representative. But it’s not clear how such a program would be funded.
“We should not ever have people living in conditions where they don’t have water,” Crawley said. “Especially when they have children, or pregnant folks, or those who might be aging… everybody’s dependent on water in some way.”
This story is a part of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative’s Making Ends Meet project, and a continuing effort to report on the burden of water bills on low-income Clevelanders. NEO SoJo is composed of 18-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including The Land. Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. Email him at [email protected]