Water meeting
Darrell King, Evanston’s water production bureau chief, told City officials he welcomes “any suggestions” to get more residents to participate in utility payment assistance programs. (Photo by Bob Seidenberg)

With the City of Evanston preparing to resume water shutoffs after a nearly two-and-a-half-year break, members of a city committee are pressing officials for alternatives to cutting off service.

At the City Council’s Administration and Public Works Committee meeting March 14, committee members and city staff agreed to hold at least one more meeting to further discuss alternatives before the shutoffs restart.

The city last shut off service for non-payment of water/sewer/sanitation bills in October 2019.

In July of 2021, then-newly-elected Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, made a reference to banning water shutoffs.

“I’m certainly not excited that we are here [resuming shutoffs] before even having that discussion,” Reid said at the most recent March meeting.

“I think it makes sense that we charge,’’ he added, “but I think there are alternative ways that we can get people to either pay the bill or collect on the bill without having to threaten to shut off water to people.’’

Under City Code, residents and commercial property owners with unpaid bills for a period of more than 30 days may face having their water turned off. In such cases, those customers would not have their service turned back on until all water bills were paid.

An average of 374 accounts per year are typically shut off for non-payment, Darrell King, the city’s water production bureau chief, told committee members in a memo and presentation at the meeting.

King said officials have used a variety of ways to try to collect delinquent payments, including the use of past-due notices, door postings, email notifications and messages on bills, as well as a special insert with a notice about arranging a payment plan.

As of Dec. 9, the city was approved to participate in the Low-income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP), King said. Established under the federal COVID-recovery American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the program gives money to help low-income households with water bills and wastewater bills.

Households that qualify for the program make water-bill payments directly to the Evanston Water Utility through the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County (CEDA), he said. A one-time bill payment can be up to $1,500 per eligible household, he said.

He said another possibility for assistance is through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

“Qualified residents who enroll in the program will receive a reduced water rate of $1.99 per 100 cubic feet of water consumption (compared to the regular rate of $3.17 per 100 cubic feet),” King said in his memo, “and a reduced sewer rate of $1.94 per 100 cubic feet (compared to the regular rate of $3.08 per 100 cubic feet). A typical family of four uses approximately 115 units of water in a typical year. Those who qualify for the program but do not pay a water-and-sewer bill will receive an annual payment reflecting their estimated savings.”

Officials estimate that roughly 600 households have qualified for the CEDA program. King estimated 17 households are paying the affordable rate.

“Knowing that there are only 17 people in the city on that affordable water-sewer rate, we know that there are more than 17 households in our community that are struggling,” Reid responded. “It seems as though right now this program isn’t anywhere near operational, and for us to move forward with shutting off water at a point when I guess there are 17 out of 14,000 accounts [citywide], we know the program is not working as is right now.”

King said staff members have tried to notify residents about the affordable payment programs using a variety of methods, including via social media, the City’s website, door postings, ward meetings and also an article in the Evanston RoundTable.

Shutoff notices typically go out a week before a shutoff occurs, King told committee members. The notices urge recipients “to make a payment arrangement, contact us, [or] provide LIHEAP approval,” he said.

He said past practices indicate that approximately 80% of the residents who hold those accounts will pay off at that point, “and presumably what they needed was the nudge to make the payment. He said that leaves “another 20% that we will be dealing with.”

“I don’t think anyone wants to shut off water from somebody who is legitimately struggling and is having a problem,” Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, said. “There are people that need help and we would like to help them.”

On the other hand, he noted, the city spends “a lot of money to deliver the water that people use, so it’s fair to expect them to pay.

“Although it seems like we need to do a lot more to promote the programs that are available,” he said. “It may make sense to use incentives to take advantage.”

Council member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, asked about the cost to the city, in time or dollars, of the shutoff service. She also asked whether officials have looked at alternative means to get payments, noting that not all communities resort to shutting off water to respond to failure to pay.

King said a larger city such as Chicago has a utility-relief program. People who apply and are approved for the program can see their water-sewer rate reduced by 50%.

That city, meanwhile, has not resumed water shutoffs, he said.

“Across the country, especially in big cities – Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, places like that – have similar programs in place to offer assistance,” he said.

But in Illinois in general, “I’ve talked to colleagues pretty much throughout the state,” he said, “and most of them started, resumed shutoffs a year ago, so they’ve been doing it for quite some time.”

Council member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, indicated he is not ready to follow Chicago’s path and shelve shutoffs altogether.

“We’re a much smaller city; we should be able to do the amount of outreach to all those residents,” to get them into the assistance programs, he said.

“In a short amount of time,” he added. “Chicago could never do that.”

City officials said they are more than open to trying alternative programs, speaking of numerous attempts to reach citizens.

“I welcome any suggestions from this council,” King told council members. “We try a bit of everything, including when we go to post these properties [for non-payment], we include information about these programs in the newspaper, board meetings and social media. We’ve sent out quite a bit. And so any suggestion from any of you is welcome.”

Officials were looking at resuming the water shutoffs April 18, Interim Deputy City Manager David Stoneback told the committee.

He suggested that staff research the issue further, reporting to the committee members at their March 28 meeting on what alternate measures other communities are using to deal with non-payment of water bills.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.