If you build the data platform, will they come?

This is the first of a series of three posts on utility data management. The Environmental Finance Center collects all sorts of data for projects. The EFC uses data from regulatory agencies, financial reports, and data on area residents from the US Census Bureau.

 

The project design questions the EFC asks are:

  1. Know the users! Are they:
    1. Decisionmakers?
    2. Staff?
    3. The public?
  2. What should be shown?
    1. Decisionmakers need reliable data on cost and benefits
    2. Staff may need to drill down on details
    3. Overall, tell a story
  3. What data exists to support and analysis and how can different data sources be connected?

 

For water and wastewater rates dashboards, the EFC’s primary audience is staff of utilities and the secondary audience are utility board members and decisionmakers. The EFC shows utility rates and, importantly, the context for those rates. Multiple dials show the user the balance between factors such as operating ratio and affordability. Comparison groups let the user look at their rates in comparison with other utilities in their watershed or with utilities serving similar numbers of customers. This year, the EFC has added dials for non-revenue water and for wastewater inefficiency to the North Carolina dashboard.

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Water Bill Payment Assistance in Multiple Federal Coronavirus Relief Programs

At the time of this writing, Congress is debating passing another economic stimulus bill to provide relief against the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic created hardships throughout the country for a year, the U.S. government passed two stimulus bills in 2020 that created or funded multiple financial relief programs for various needs. While there is no program that specifically provides relief to water and wastewater utilities’ losses in revenue, there are several programs funded through the two federal relief bills that can help customers pay past due or current water and/or wastewater bills (“water bills” for short). Water bill payment assistance relieves some of the financial burden on customers that are in most need, and also provides utilities needed revenues to cover unpaid bills and prevent shutoffs in many cases. While there is financial assistance to pay water bills, the fragmentation of the programs can be complicated to navigate. This blog post provides a summary and links to our new factsheets that describe several federally-funded coronavirus relief programs to date that may be used to pay water bills. Information about where customers can go for help is provided.

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Can your Water Utility Afford a Bill Payment Assistance Program?

Guest Post by Stacey Berahzer of IB Environmental

Screenshot from Tool: Bill Payment Assistance Program Cost Estimation For Water Utilities

Water is such a universally essential service, that many utilities seek ways to help their low-income customers with affording the service. Generally referred to as a “customer assistance program” or CAP, this help can take different forms. Some utilities assist by repairing leaks and retrofitting low-income customers’ homes with water efficient devices. But, the more common approach is to provide some sort of financial assistance. For example, a special payment plan to help customers who have arrearages may be coupled with some debt forgiveness. Many utilities also offer discounts on the bills of customers who can prove their low-income status. But, is the cost of implementing such a program prohibitive? The good news is that there has never been a better time to find out.

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Ongoing Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic Conditions on North Carolina’s Water and Wastewater Utilities

Over the past 6 months*, the EFC has continued to investigate how utilities across NC are faring as the ongoing pandemic continues to create a variety of challenges related to revenue and operations. The big picture takeaway is that some things are improving while some things remain the sameMany utilities continue to feel a variety of impacts from COVID-19 on utility revenues and practices, some utilities are transitioning to pre-pandemic billing practices, and some utilities will be providing funds for bill payment assistance to customers who have past due bills.   

This week, the EFC is releasing a report, funded by the NC Policy Collaboratory, that details some of the on-going impacts on water and wastewater utilities that have resulted from COVID-19 and the implementation of NC’s Executive Orders 124/142which prohibited disconnection of residential customers and mandated the establishment of payment plansAs part of its research, the EFC interviewed staff from 16 different utilities and collected survey responses from a total of 34 utilities between August and December 2020. This research included utilities across the state that varied in size from 42-300,000 accounts and which had a wide variety of financial health characteristics. 

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Setting Rates During COVID-19: Florida Rate Survey Shows Utilities are Looking for Answers in the Experience of Others

Guest Post By Nicholas Smith of Raftelis

A new fiscal year typically means new water and wastewater rates for utilities in Florida. Florida utilities have long relied upon small and predictable annual rate increases to ensure their rates are sufficient to cover the cost to serve their customers. In setting rates, Florida utilities have always depended on careful financial analysis. Although COVID-19 has complicated this norm — Florida utilities can still proceed with rate changes, but it is best to proceed with some enhanced strategy. With universally high unemployment rates and utility governing bodies more concerned about affordability than ever, research by Raftelis shows utilities are moving ahead with rate increases, but they are looking for more data than before to support their decisions.

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