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Some Valley Cities To Restart Water Shut-Offs For Delinquent Bills

MARK BRODIE: Some Valley cities have decided to restart the process of shutting off water service for residents who don't pay their bills; most have not been doing it during the pandemic. Taylor Seely has been reporting on this. She covers Southwest Valley cities for the Arizona Republic and says seven cities will take that step. Her reporting finds cities across the Valley are owed around $15 million and that more than 50,000 residents and businesses were behind on their bills as of the beginning of this year. Seely joins me to talk more about this. And, Taylor, why have these cities decided now to restart disconnections?

TAYLOR SEELY: Right. What I've heard from cities is that they're beginning to resume disconnections because the delinquent balances are growing. Some of the cities have said that a lot of these delinquent accounts were delinquent before the pandemic. And some of the cities are also saying that the lack of late fees or any type of penalty for refusing or not being able to pay has been a disincentive. So I think a lot of cities are not at the point of extreme concern, but want to preemptively act to make sure that they're able to maintain their infrastructure and services going forward.

BRODIE: Yeah. Is this a matter of cities being worried about not being able to pay their bills or make the investments that they need to make because they're not bringing in money from their customers?

SEELY: I haven't heard any one city specifically say they are extremely concerned for their infrastructure or projects going forward. But for example, Buckeye had some of the highest percentages of delinquent accounts out of the 12 largest Valley cities. And what their water resources director, Alisha Solano, told me was that this could potentially prevent the city from moving forward with water projects that they deem very important. So I think they just want to act proactively.

BRODIE: Now, you report that some of these delinquencies predate the pandemic. Is it possible to discern how many of these residents are falling behind on their bills because of COVID-19?

SEELY: That's a good question. I think one of the ways that we can best analyze that is by figuring out how many accounts were delinquent at certain dates. So for example, in Peoria as of April 1, 2020 — which was just at the start of the pandemic — 8,000 accounts were delinquent. You fast forward to now, it's about 9,000. You know, so you could make a case that much of those that were delinquent then that are still delinquent now have, had nothing to do with COVID. At the same time, you could look at the number of accounts that ... have been delinquent for between one and 30 days, between one and 60 days, and you might also make a case for those accounts that those are newer delinquencies, and there's a good chance those are resulting from the pandemic.

BRODIE: So for residents who are delinquent on these bills, do they just have to pay up everything all at once? I mean, I know that affects several cities here, but are any of them setting up payment plans or trying to work with the residents to pay these maybe over time?

SEELY: Yes, every city that I have spoken to has said that as long as residents get on a payment plan, they're really going to do their best to work with the residents. Typically, these payment plans will kind of depend on a customer's income level, but they'll also take into account from the city's perspective, what is a reasonable amount of time to pay off this balance. So some cities have said they try to customize the plan and make it long-term payment plans versus short-term payment plans. But of course, there are some cities that have very specific stipulations. For example any account over $50 — and I think that's the case in Buckeye — for more than 60 days, that is eligible for shut off. So residents will want to check in with the specific programs of their cities. In addition to payment plans, residents should also look into the various assistance programs that their cities offer. You know, most cities offer utility specific programs that are funded through the city. A lot of those cities have increased the funding for those given the pandemic. But cities have also received federal coronavirus relief funds that have allowed them to further assist residents. So residents who are in need should look into those. Absolutely.

BRODIE: Now, this does not affect every Valley city. Which are not taking this path, and why are they deciding to continue doing what they have been doing?

SEELY: Right. Right now, Peoria, Tempe, Surprise and Glendale say that they have no plans to start disconnecting any customers. If you talk to officials from those cities, they would all attribute their choice to the pandemic, saying that in a public health crisis where being sanitary is vital, they are not ready to take people's water away.

BRODIE: And Phoenix is also in that category, right?

SEELY: Oh, yes. Phoenix is a sort of unique situation where they actually a few months back — I believe it was October — they decided to permanently end their water disconnections for most residents. So what they do instead when residents can't pay their water in Phoenix, they will choose to put them on low flow plans. So what that does is it supplies them the basic amount of water needed for things like cooking and cleaning, but it doesn't take away their water entirely.

BRODIE: All right, that is Taylor Seely; she covers Southwest Valley cities for the Arizona Republic. Taylor, nice to talk to you. Thank you.

SEELY: Thank you.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.