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.
On October 5th, two House Democrats, Harley Rouda and Rashida Tlaib, submitted this letter to ask the director of the CDC to give a nation-wide moratorium on water disconnections due to non-payment through the state of emergency because of COVID-19. While this is at the federal scale, many individual utilities and states already declared moratoria in 2020, though some of those have expired by now (mid-October). Utilities and state and local government officials recognize the value of access to clean and safe water during the pandemic, and utilities are motivated to avoid disconnections for public health and customer service reasons, as well as to minimize the cost of operations associated with disconnections and reconnections. Still, disconnecting a customer from water service is seen as an important tool for revenue collection in the water/wastewater industry. According to data from 84 North Carolina water and wastewater utilities provided to the North Carolina Utilities Commission, an average of 13.7% of a utility’s customers were past due on their bill in June of 2019 (pre-COVID). Providing notice of disconnection or disconnection itself can be effective for encouraging payment of these late bills, but how effective they are is unclear.
The abrupt arrival of COVID-19 in the United States financially impacted businesses across all sectors, with water and wastewater utilities being no exception (see our previous blog post). Two major factors influenced revenue streams for utilities in the state. The first was Executive Order 124/142 issued by Governor Cooper on March 31st, which prevented utilities from disconnecting water or wastewater services to residential customers due to missed payments. This moratorium extended until the end of July. The second factor was that many commercial, industrial, and institutional customers reduced or stopped their operations in line with the statewide stay-at-home order. For some communities, non-residential customers use the greatest share of water or wastewater. The utilities in these areas were at risk of significant revenue declines due to these customers ceasing operations.
We know there are a wide range of financial impacts on utilities during the pandemic depending on the size and composition of each utility’s customer base. By diving deep into a case study of one utility, we can better understand the specific effects that some systems across the state have been experiencing. At the EFC, we’ve been working with the Yadkin Valley Sewer Authority (YVSA) since the beginning of the pandemic to assess their financial condition and provide technical assistance. Using data and interviews they’ve provided, we are able to share a case study of their experience over the past year and how they are preparing for the future. Continue reading
August has been a key transition month for local government utilities in North Carolina as EO 124/142 (which prohibited disconnections due to non-payment for residential utility accounts) has expired, payment plans are required to be in place, and Governor Cooper just announced $175 million in relief money, including $122 million for assistance in paying rent and utility bills.
How are water and wastewater utilities across the state faring under COVID-19 conditions? We’ve been keeping track here at the EFC and though the circumstances are constantly changing, we’ve been able to assess some of the impacts of COVID-19 on utilities during the last five months.
We have just released a report funded by Division of Water Infrastructure in the Department of Environmental Quality, outlining results from a poll, analysis of the EO 124/142 data that utilities reported to the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) for the full April through July period that covered the statewide moratorium, stories of individual utilities (blog post coming soon), and an overview of our financial resiliency tool. Continue reading
These are unprecedented times. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, social norms have changed and unemployment has risen sharply across the nation. As states have pushed residents to stay home, water usage patterns have altered for both commercial and residential customers. In many cases, commercial customers have decreased use while residential customers have increased. Schools have been closed for months, some of which are the largest water customers in a small town or county. Executive orders have been passed, mandating that service cannot be cut-off for non-payment.
In short, revenues have changed. The level of change varies based on the makeup of the utility’s customer base and the specific hardships within the area, but the change exists in every case. These changes in revenues are typically associated with losses, meaning that budget predictions are off and the actual revenue collected will be much lower than planned.
Utilities will need time to recover these losses. But how do we measure a utility’s ability to bounce back? Bring in the buzz word: Resilience.
At the EFC, we see this pandemic as both very different than anything the US has ever experienced, and also very similar to some of the short-term shocks experienced by utilities in past emergencies. For example, a drinking water utility serving a coastal community that has been walloped by a hurricane. In both cases, utilities that are more financially resilient are more likely to bounce back faster. Continue reading