Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Poorer Residents To Get Help With Water Bills

Up to $5,000 per household from federal funding. But distribution could be tricky.

By - Dec 1st, 2021 12:14 pm
Water faucet. Photo from Pixabay.

Water faucet.

Milwaukee residents that are behind on their water bills could soon see relief via a federal assistance program.

Each eligible household could see up to $5,000 in relief. The funding will only apply to water and sewer charges, not other municipal service charges (i.e. the street lighting fee) that appear on the bill.

This is “really exciting,” said Milwaukee Water Works superintendent Karen Dettmer, “because for years we have been trying to get a low-income water assistance funding program.” She was addressing the Public Works Committee on Wednesday morning.

The State of Wisconsin already operates a federally-funded low-income energy assistance program, but it does not offer water assistance.

With a federal grant, it will now offer a water assistance program. But unlike COVID-19 rental assistance program, no special signup process is envisioned.

The city and state will match lists of already eligible households in the energy program with overdue water bills. The state will then send the city a payment.

“Because of the limited amount of money the state of Wisconsin is going to be getting, that $18 million, they are going to start with that list,” said Dettmer. “The water utility itself does not determine eligibility for this pot of money.” The city will receive only a portion of the $18 million.

Dettmer said the nature of how water is sold would make it difficult for the city-owned utility to determine eligibility on its own. Water is sold to a premise (property), while energy is sold to a registered customer.

“I’m skeptical this is going to work effectively, but it does sound good and I’m happy something is getting done,” said Alderman Robert Bauman.

He said the nonprofits administering the COVID-19 rental assistance program failed to connect tenants and landlords with the funding.

What will happen if someone calls the water utility about the program?

“We will connect them with the state,” said Dettmer. She said the federal legislation places the authority to run the program with the state.

“Alright, good luck on making this work,” said Bauman. “It has trouble written all over it.”

“It would be foolish for us to turn down the money,” said Dettmer.

She did not have an exact figure available for the number of overdue bills. The city does not turn off water service to delinquent customers, but does annually transfer the overdue balance to the property’s tax bill. The city can ultimately seize a tax delinquent property via tax foreclosure.

“Interestingly in 2020 we did transfer less money, less accounts than we have in earlier years,” said Dettmer. She attributed that to the suspension of late fees at the onset of the pandemic. The late payment penalties have since been restored.

The committee endorsed entering into a contract with the state to enable the payment. The full council is scheduled to consider the proposal in two weeks. Dettmer said the city would see the funding in early 2022.

Categories: City Hall, Weekly

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