CP photo by Haley Frederick
Speakers at the Aug. 10 board meeting
Members of the Our Water Campaign attended a Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) board meeting on Thursday to urge the board to develop a water-affordability plan for low-income customers. Our Water asked the board to form a subcommittee to work on the project and to consider a moratorium on shutoffs, amid the slew of issues PWSA has been dealing with in the past several months, such as billing discrepancies and concern over lead levels
“We’re here today to make sure that there is an assistance program in place — we have one for energy, we have one for electricity, we have one for the sewage bill at Alcosan now — we don’t have one for water,” said Aly Shaw of Pittsburgh United. “So we want to make sure there’s an assistance program in place, and until that happens, we think, with the incorrect bills coming out of PWSA and the lead crisis, that there shouldn’t be any water shutoffs until people have an assistance program.”
The Our Water Campaign is a coalition of several local organizations, including Pittsburgh United, Clean Water Action, One Pennsylvania and the Sierra Club. Together their goal is to ensure safe, affordable, publicly controlled water for all.
“The Our Water Campaign formed at the beginning of the year to address the lead crisis,” said Shaw. “A lot of people that we’ve talked to, if they’re, for example, seniors or on government assistance, they often times can’t pay their bill right away. So they’ll get into this cycle where they’ll have to pay fees and eventually have shut-off notices or have their water shut off completely."
According to Shaw, bill-paying becomes an issue for some customers when their bills are not issued to them on a monthly basis, as they are supposed to be or arrive with incorrect charges. Shaw says that while going door-to-door, they’ve heard about these issues again and again. One story that keeps coming up is that a customer gets a PWSA bill for as much as $2,000, and they’re told it’s because of a leak. They challenge the bill to get the price reduced, but still end up paying much more than their usual bill — often between $200 and $800.
“Most people are as concerned about billing and rate increases as they are about lead," Shaw said.
After Shaw and other members of the campaign presented their concerns and requests to the board, Chairperson Debbie Lestitian swiftly moved to form a subcommittee to “explore a customer-assistance program.” She nominated Pittsburgh City Councilor Deb Gross, assistant secretary of the board, and Vice Chairperson Margaret Lanier to the committee. They both accepted the nominations and were instructed to populate the subcommittee as they see fit.
“I look forward to our coalition working with the board more and more to make sure that we can get a customer-assistance program that works for everyone,” said Glenn Grayson, of social-justice group One Pennsylvania. “I’m hoping that they do put a moratorium on shut-offs, at least until the customer-assistance program is in place.”
Though there isn’t any word yet on the possibility of a moratorium on shut-offs, members of the Our Water Campaign left the meeting feeling closer to their goal of safe, affordable water for Pittsburgh. “Overall, I think it was a great day,” said Grayson. “When board members and community members and organizations work together, we can make Pittsburgh the best place it can be.”