The Birmingham Water Works Board is pushing ahead with collecting from thousands of delinquent customers despite concerns from some officials who wanted to give people more time to catch up on their bills before the utility started turning water off.
The 200,000 customers of the BWWB have had an eight-month reprieve from collections attempts and shut-offs due to non-payment while the utility grappled with a new payment system implemented back in November.
At that time, customers complained they were having a hard time paying their bills using the new system. There were issues with customers not being able to log in to the system, some complained that their bills were not being delivered, and others said they could not get through to the Water Works customer service for hours at a time. The complaints about the new system continued for the next several months, so the water board delayed collections.
The Water Works announced in April that issues with the payment system had been resolved and that it would resume collections on June 1, cutting off residents who had past-due balances. At that time, the utility estimated about 35,000 customers had delinquent balances that could subject them to disconnection. By May that number had dropped to just under 24,000, officials said.
BWWB spokesperson Rick Jackson said this week that the number of customers with outstanding bills now stands at 10,000. Jackson said the utility has made significant progress in collecting past-due balances and making arrangements for outstanding balances that total in the millions of dollars, but there are still customers who have not paid or made payment arrangements and could be cut off at any time.
“We still have a ways to go to get to where we need to be,” he said.
In an op-ed piece released this week, Jackson said that there are still “several million dollars in past due water accounts.” If not collected, he said, the outstanding balance could result in the need for rate increases.
“Every dollar not collected from delinquent accounts could result in additional rate increases for paying water customers to make up that loss of revenue. A 1-percent rate increase equals about $1.3 million; therefore, Birmingham Water Works could need an additional 3-percent rate increase in 2018 to make up for revenue shortfall if current delinquent customers don’t pay their outstanding balances.”
Jackson said the utility typically operates with between 8,000 and 9,000 delinquencies each month. The system typically does not shut off water until customers are 60 days delinquent.
Jackson said water to about 1,500 residents had been shut off since June 1. He estimated about 40 percent of those residents had their water restored by paying their bills shortly after it was disconnected.
Some city officials and water board members had lobbied to delay the Water Works collection efforts until July 1. Earlier this month, Mayor William Bell and City Council President Johnathan Austin urged the delay, and Water Works board member William Muhummad attempted to call a special meeting to address the concerns. Muhummad told the council that the special meeting failed because there was not a quorum present.
Muhummad told residents during the June 6 council meeting to dispute bills if they felt they were not correct, and he urged council members to get the word out about the Water Works collection attempts to their constituents.
Austin said in a statement that he is still concerned that the collection attempts will hurt some residents: “I believe that citizens should be given an opportunity to get adjusted to the new system as well as settle their past due balances as a result of the Water Works moving to the new system. We must remember that our seniors already struggle to pay their water bills in addition to getting their medications. We must be more understanding and compassionate so that we don’t become a city that is more concerned about money than people.”
Still time for some customers
Jackson said there is still time for some customers who are delinquent to make payment arrangements. Arrangements, he said, can only be made before water is shut off.
Jackson said customers can come into the Water Works payment center or make arrangements over the telephone. The Water Works has temporarily extended hours of operation in its office to accept payments and payment arrangements on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon. The phone center is open until 7 p.m. Monday through Friday to accept payments and arrangements.
Jackson said that customers who experience higher than average bills should contact the Water Works so that they can look for possible reasons, such as a leak, or can re-read the meter.
“We want to help as much as we possibly can, but we need to at least have customers engage with us,” said General Manager Mac Underwood. “Every customer is a valued customer, and we want our transition back to our normal business practices to be a smooth one for everyone.”