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CFPUA likely to scrap flow-restrictor pilot, take new approach to delinquent bills

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Benjamin Schachtman
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The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority will vote on changing its approach to delinquent accounts this week. The utility is looking to scrap plans for so-called flow restrictors, in favor of more lenient thresholds for overdue accounts, but also eventually resuming residential shutoffs.

 

As of January, CFPUA had nearly 6,000 delinquent accounts totalling close to $3 million. Overdue bills are a long-standing problem, but Covid-19 has exacerbated the issue -- it’s also turned what is already an unpopular move, shutting off water for unpaid accounts, into a recognized public health hazard.

CFPUA’s initial solution, floated in late 2020, was the use of flow-restrictors which would reduce available water without completely shutting it off. Facing criticism, CFPUA initially delayed implementing a pilot program in January for 60 days -- now the utility will likely drop the idea altogether.

In its place, CFPUA is considering raising the threshold for delinquent accounts from $100 to $450, which brings it in line with the average overdue balance. The move would drop the number of delinquent accounts by over 3,000 customers. Accounts that are still overdue would be automatically enrolled in 12-month, interest-free payments plans.

According to Boardmember and retired physician Jessica Cannon, the changes reflect philosophical lessons learned during the pandemic. [Cannon also chairs CFPUA's sustainability committee, which in late February signed off on cancelling the flow-restrictor program in place of the changes that will be considered this week.]

“I think the question we face as a community and really as a society is, is it okay to cut off water to families? Just because they're poor? What if there are young kids in the house? What if they're elderly family members or folks with chronic medical problems? Is this the kind of society we want? I don't think it is. I think what we've seen in the last year is we need to be more creative to make sure that everyone has access to water regardless of their financial status.”

At the same time, CFPUA still sees the need for a tool to get the most chronically delinquent customers to come to the table; to that end, the utility will also consider a sunset date on its self-imposed moratorium on shutoffs. While Governor Roy Cooper’s protections expired in July of 2020, and other neighboring utilities (with the exception of H2GO) resumed shutoffs, CFPUA initially planned to hold off on both shutoffs and late fees for residential customers until mid-March of this year. 

The utility is now considering pushing that date further out, until September 1, by when CFPUA hopes the county will be largely vaccinated. CFPUA also hopes that federal money in the most recent CARES act, as well as in a pending relief bill heading to President Joe Biden’s desk, can also provide relief for water bills.

If the changes are approved during this week’s Board meeting, they would take effect for residential customers in May.

 

Links:

 

  • You can watch the meeting live here on Wednesday, March 10 at 9 a.m.
  • You can find the meeting agenda here.