Two years ago, neither the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] nor the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority [ALCOSAN] was helping out many low-income customers.
“Few are using PWSA’s programs for low-income customers,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote in May 2019. PWSA at that time had signed up 2,987 customers, a fraction of its more than 100,000 customers.
“Alcosan’s sewage bill assistance program slow to gain traction,” wrote TribLive in November 2019. ALCOSAN’s assistance program had given out 2,584 awards, an even smaller fraction of its roughly 300,000 customers.
Both programs have the same eligibility threshold. Any customer who earns 150% of the poverty level or less can sign up. And both utilities use the Dollar Energy Fund, a nonprofit that administers utility assistance programs across the country. So, in theory, a customer who calls to sign up for one program, should be able to sign up for the other during that same call.
Since 2019, PWSA has increased participation in its assistance program by more than 50%, with 4,565 customers now signed up. ALCOSAN, by contrast, is helping fewer customers than two years ago: 2,326. That’s less than 1% of ALCOSAN’s 300,000 customers, even though around 11% of Allegheny County residents are in poverty.
Jody Robertson, the director of communications for Dollar Energy, wasn’t sure why some PWSA customers who call to sign up for assistance aren’t also signing up for assistance from ALCOSAN at the same time. It might be that customers are not aware that they are paying ALCOSAN through their local water utility bill, she said.
PWSA didn’t have an explanation for the discrepancy, but did note that its program doesn’t have as many steps to enroll: PWSA doesn’t require customers to collect a social security number or to provide documentation of their income, while ALCOSAN requires both. PWSA also only requires its customers to recertify every two years, whereas ALCOSAN requires it every year.
PWSA’s program has also become more generous. Its discount increased from $26 to $36. Now it covers almost half of an average low-income customer’s bill.
ALCOSAN’s assistance increased in the same period by about a dollar per month. But because the rates it charges increased by even more, the discount was slightly less generous for its average customer. ALCOSAN doesn’t offer cash assistance to residents who fall behind on their bills.
ALCOSAN increases its assistance every year but declined to offer an interview to discuss how it sets rates for the program or advertises it. “We promote the program on all our social channels, at community events, printed information available in neighborhoods, community centers, printed materials and information provided to our municipal partners so they can help spread the word,” ALCOSAN spokesperson Joey Vallarian wrote in an email.
Elizabeth Weatherspoon, who recently signed up to PWSA’s customer assistance program, owed PWSA $41 on her most recent water and sewage bill, after her discount. But she owed ALCOSAN the full $62. Her bill was flipped: The typical customer pays twice as much to PWSA as ALCOSAN. She is now paying around 6% of her income rather than almost 9%. That’s still more than the Environmental Protection Agency considers affordable.
PWSA budgets for its customer assistance program, so that it can fund the program into the future. ALCOSAN, by contrast, has a set amount of money to distribute: $1 million, which it has been using since the program started five years ago. "The $1 million is what’s there to spend. If that gets depleted, we will revisit continuing to fund the program," Vallarian wrote.
ALCOSAN’s sign-up rates are even lower in many of the 82 other municipalities it serves outside the city of Pittsburgh, where it had signed up nearly 1,500 customers as of 2019.
In Wilkinsburg Borough, for example, ALCOSAN had signed up 21 customers, a rate more than three times lower than Pittsburgh when compared to each municipality’s total population size. And Wilkinsburg has a higher poverty rate than Pittsburgh.
In more than half of the municipalities in ALCOSAN’s service area, there were five or fewer customers signed up and in 16 of those municipalities there was not a single customer signed up.
- researching where the need is greatest and seeking them out in their communities;
- training its customer service team;
- allowing customers to report their income over the phone rather than requiring them to provide proof;
- calling more than 9,000 customers at risk of shutoff directly.
- implemented a Google search advertising campaign that helped draw 10,000 visits to the customer assistance page.
ALCOSAN has made around a dozen general Facebook posts about its assistance program over the past couple years, but the posts typically receive just a couple “likes,” and the highest had 14 engagements. By contrast, ALCOSAN recently produced a professionally animated video to encourage residents to scoop up their dog poop and it paid for the post to reach more customers. The dog poop post received more than 200 likes and more than 60 shares on Facebook.
ALCOSAN customers have to scroll past 14 other programs and announcements on its own website to find its assistance program or navigate a row of dropdown menus, whereas the program is near the top of PWSA’s website.
Vallarian didn’t respond to a question about how much of its advertising budget is spent on its low-income program.
Corey O’Connor, the chair of ALCOSAN’s board and City Council member, said its customer assistance program has been around for two years longer than PWSA’s program and has been “successful.” He told the Trib in 2019 that ALCOSAN needed to educate more people about the program. And he told PublicSource that ALCOSAN customers may not know they are eligible because they don’t send out their own bills.
“So there could be a lot of people who might not understand that and it’s more an education piece,” he said.
Pickering sees the increasing success of PWSA’s program as one of the benefits of having a public water utility. Giving discounts to low-income customers would cut into the profit margins of private companies, he said. “Some assistance programs are a token gesture,” he said. “There are barriers to enrolling, they’re not widely advertised.”
Not all public utilities are equally responsive and democratic, according to Marcela Gonzalez Rivas, an assistant professor who studies water policy at the University of Pittsburgh. Rivas co-authored a paper in the journal Utilities Policy about how water activists in the Pittsburgh area pushed PWSA to become more democratic when it was threatened with privatization. Without transparency and participation, public utilities don’t always act in the public interest even if they don’t generate profit, she said.
“The whole ideology in the water sector is that it’s an economic good, so even though it’s public, it might function as a private entity,” she said.
State Rep. Ed Gainey, the victor of the Democratic primary for mayor in Pittsburgh, said he hasn’t made any decisions yet about how he would choose members of the ALCOSAN or PWSA boards if he’s elected but says he won’t support rate increases without help to more low-income customers. Pittsburgh’s mayor nominates all PWSA board members and half of ALCOSAN’s board along with the Allegheny County Executive.
“If we’re going to talk about a rate increase, then we’re going to be just as mindful and diligent about promoting” customer assistance programs, he said.
Pennsylvania American Water and Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority
Pennsylvania American Water, a private water and sewage utility that services most customers in Pittsburgh’s South Hills neighborhoods, recently increased the total amount donated to customers from $500,000 to $600,000 annually. It offers customers a roughly 30% discount on their average bills.
But when the money runs out, the company has to turn away low-income customers, according to Manuela Saxman, who runs its program and personally calls every low-income customer who enrolls. When funds ran low in previous years, the company stopped offering assistance to every low-income customer and focused its help on those who had their water shut off, according to the Dollar Energy Fund, which administers the program. The utility still has $70,000 left this year and it didn’t use up all $500,000 that was budgeted last year, Saxman said.
Rivas said she found it difficult to get information from the private company about its programs but the amount they say they provide publicly is “not adequate.” PWSA’s bill discount program provides more than $1.9 million in annual discounts, more than three times the amount Pennsylvania American Water has donated for assistance. Pennsylvania American Water serves eight times as many people as PWSA.
Gary Lobaugh, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania American Water, said information about how many low-income customers its program serves, how much money their customers save in discounts and how many of its customers are facing shutoffs after the pandemic moratorium was lifted is unavailable.
Discount programs can be burdensome to sign up for, since, for example, low-income customers in the South Hills have to sign up for PWSA’s program to get a discount on their sewage bill, another discount program from Pennsylvania American Water on their drinking water bill, and a third discount program with ALCOSAN to get a discount on their sewage treatment bill. And even though they can sign up for all three programs by calling Dollar Energy, they each have slightly different requirements.
The Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority doesn’t currently have an assistance program. Nick Bianchi, the executive director of the authority that serves 19 municipalities and a small area of eastern Pittsburgh, said in an email that its water is cheaper than PWSA and PA American Water, particularly for customers who use a lot of water. Wilkinsburg includes almost 9,000 gallons of water in its minimum charge of $26, an amount that would cost a PA American customer $134 and PWSA customers $125.
About 5,500 of Wilkinsburg-Penn’s accounts —nearly one out of every six — became delinquent during the pandemic.
Gainey has already written a letter to the authority’s board, asking them to create an assistance program. He plans to continue having conversations with local officials “to build a rapport with them, as I’m trying to do now, to help them see their practices a little differently.”
In the meantime the authority waived its $5 fee to set up a payment plan and customers were given an additional 12 months to pay off their bill. Signups must be done in person.
Bianchi said the authority is currently reviewing a Sierra Club study about how an assistance program could work. “The main issue remains the initial cost of setting up the program,” he said.
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
This story was fact-checked by Catherine Taipe.