NEW HANOVER COUNTY — While Cape Fear Public Utility Authority will continue its vow of continuing to provide water access to customers behind on payments, a new initiative — which at a meeting this week was delayed until March 2021 — will experiment with restricting the water flow to a select group of those who have outstanding water bills.
Staff at CFPUA are facing a dilemma. Though there are more than 6,000 customers who are late on payments by two months or more — equal to $2.7 million in lost income, or about 3% of the annual operating budget — there is little motivation to start cutting off residential water access during a pandemic.
The CFPUA board first approved a water-flow restrictor pilot program in September, originally slated for implementation in mid-January. The restrictor is a small quarter-like object with a hole through the middle; it is inserted into a water meter and dilutes the flow of water into a home by up to 90% or more.
At a Wednesday meeting, the board decided to delay the program’s start date until March, citing worsening Covid-19 pressures facing CFPUA’s customer base.
“Given where we are today, we just decided that we weren’t in the best position to move forward with this program as it was, given the hardships that our customers are facing,” said Cammie Bellamy, a CFPUA spokesperson. “After some discussion about the program, they decided to push the launch back to March, and use this next three months as a time to communicate with those customers who might need some help catching up with their bills.”
The pilot program will target around 12 households with the “largest and oldest delinquent amounts,” according to a CFPUA presentation.
Shortly after, CFPUA made the call to suspend shutoffs across the board, Gov. Roy Cooper authorized an executive order that suspended utility shutoffs statewide. That order expired at the end of July, but CFPUA has continued to hold back on shutting off water for residential accounts. In mid-October, cutoffs for commercial accounts resumed.
Since CFPUA’s expenses are virtually all subsidized by customer payments, a move toward recouping a portion of that lost $2.2 million was a necessity, or else the authority’s operations will be severely limited, according to Rob Zapple, a member of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners who is also on the CFPUA Board.
“The rate paying is critical to the overall model of CFPUA,” Zapple said. “There’s got to be another way to approach this rather than shutting off people’s water.”
Zapple and Bellamy both stressed that this initiative is not an added layer to CFPUA’s delinquency procedures. Rather, the authority hopes it will spur collaboration between staff and customers who are struggling to pay their utility bills. CFPUA offers payment plans to customers behind on payments, and committing to a plan is a surefire way to avoid having a flow restrictor tacked on to a customer’s water meter, Zapple said.
Bellamy added once the pilot programs — involving around a dozen residences — gets underway, staff will evaluate its effectiveness in an effort to ascertain whether the implementation of a restrictor might increase the likelihood that a customer will opt into a payment plan. Also, they’ll be looking to see if basic water usage — flushing toilets, washing hands and drinking — can be accomplished with the restricted flow rates.
“Instead of completely shutting off water, we would still be allowing even those customers with severe delinquencies who aren’t contacting us, so they would at least have some water service, even if it is very limited,” Bellamy said.
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