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Nevada City water customers get more time to pay bills

Nevada City residents who get their water from the city will have some relief after new, more lenient water policies are adopted by the Nevada City Council.

Currently, the city’s municipal code considers a water bill to be delinquent once it is unpaid for 30 days, and allows for water service to be shut off following a 10-day notice.

However, the changes, mandated by Senate Bill 998, mean customers will have at least 60 days to settle their bill before becoming delinquent. The changes also require water utilities to provide written notice at least seven days before service discontinuation, which must contain information on how to avoid an interruption of service as well as procedures for contesting or appealing a bill.

The policy change, on first reading last week, is expected to return to the Nevada City Council for a final vote. State law mandates the changes must be in effect by April 1.

As part of last week’s policy update, the city would not discontinue service during the investigation of a customer dispute or complain, while under an appeal process or while under review for an approved payment plan.

The city would also prohibit service discontinuation for customers whose life would be threatened or face serious risk as certified by a licensed primary caregiver if their water were shut off. In order to receive that benefit, these customers must also demonstrate financial need either by declaring their household income as less than 200% of the federal poverty level — $52,400 for a family of four — or through any member of that household’s enrollment in assistance programs such as CalWORKS, CalFresh, Medi-Cal, the Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment Program or the California Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

These customers must then also enroll in an alternative payment arrangement, which could include time extensions, debt amortization, an alternative payment schedule which would allow less frequent lump sum payments, or a reduced payment at the discretion of the public works director.

Customers whose annual household income is less than twice the federal poverty level also would have the opportunity to waive interest charges on delinquent bills once a year and will have their reconnection fees capped at $50 during normal operating hours.

The new policy would notify tenants when landlords failed to pay their water bills, and allow an opportunity to activate utility services without paying the landlord’s debt.

Rising costs

According to a National Public Radio investigation into water rates in six major Midwest cities, water rates in those cities, like many across the country, have doubled since 2007. In Chicago, average rates for a family of four nearly tripled from 2017 to 2018.

The report points to a sharp decrease in federal spending for water infrastructure, which accounts for a large portion of water costs, as a main contributor to rising water rates.

“Dealing with these aging pipes, including repairing or replacing them or losing untold gallons to leaks, is costing water utilities an increasing amount of money,” the investigation read. “Many cities have been forced to raise rates to deal with decrepit infrastructure — leaking, cracking water pipes that in some places date to the 19th century. With the federal government allocating less money for water infrastructure, most cities have foisted the bill on to their customers, especially those who can least afford it.”

According to a report by the Value of Water Campaign, as federal investment in water infrastructure has plummeted from $76 per person in 1977 to $11 per person in 2014, local investment has not kept up, leaving rate payers to foot a larger portion of the bill. By comparison, the federal government spent about $251 per person on information technology infrastructure; $136 per person on highway infrastructure and $46 per person on energy infrastructure.

“In contrast, over the same time period, the federal government’s share of total public spending on transportation infrastructure (including highways, mass transit, and aviation) has stayed constant at approximately half of total capital spending, with the remainder coming from state and local sources,” the report states. “Per capita spending by local communities has more than doubled in real terms from $45 in 1977 to upwards of $100 per person in 2014. Despite increased contributions from water ratepayers, this report shows that funding for water infrastructure continues to fall far below capital needs.”

Following the National Public Radio report, Chicago announced that starting in March it will no longer shut off water service to customers whose households fall below 150% of the federal poverty level.

To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email jorona@theunion.com or call 530-477-4229.


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