Spending at the Sewerage & Water Board has soared in the last year while the amount of money it collects has steadily dropped.
That’s because a third of the utility’s 136,000 accounts are not paying their water bills, Interim Director Jade Brown Russell said Tuesday during the monthly Finance and Administration Committee meeting.
That could also lead to some major projects not leaving the drawing board for the time being, she added.
Last November, the S&WB put a temporary stop to water shutoffs for delinquent accounts. That came after an increasing backlog of disputes about unusually high water bills. The moratorium was set to last until March but has continued into June.
“People thought once the moratorium started, everyone could not pay, not just people under dispute,” Russell said.
With money coming in from just 86,000 of 136,000 accounts, the S&WB only saw an increase in revenues of 4.9 percent as of March, half of what the utility expected due to a rate increase that projected a 10 to 12 percent increase.
As a result, the organization has eaten into its operating budget, putting its expenses up 18.4 percent compared to this time last year.
“November was when the water moratorium was put into place,” Russell said. “You can immediately see the drop of days of cash available, trending down on a monthly basis since then.”
“Days of cash” refers to the S&WB’s available money for projects. In March 2016, the utility had a surplus of 309 days of cash. As of March 2018, that reserve had decreased to 139 days. No dollar amount was given.
While emergency expenses increased this year after extreme cold and flooding, Russell said that steps are being taken to get the books back in order.
One of those steps, Russell said, is as simple as getting customers to pay their bills again by getting through the backlog of more than 10,000 disputed accounts. Many bills are high because of a lack of training on the S&WB billing software and inaccurate estimated reading of water meters.
The S&WB will also have to look at what projects it can and cannot afford, Russell said.
“We will be taking aggressive action on reducing expenses,” she said. “Projects that are not absolute priorities are going to be held back.”
In the meantime, Russell said, customers who have disputed bills should continue to pay what they believe is accurate while their bill is under investigation.
“We encourage folks to do that,” Russell said.