Trenton – Acting to boost the performance of the program intended to help residents afford their water bills by making the federal aid available to more people, the Senate today advanced legislation sponsored by Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez that would help compel the needed participation of water companies in the state program.
Water and wastewater utilities have to agree to participate so their customers can receive the financial aid, but only 136 of the nearly 600 water and sewer companies in New Jersey have taken advantage of the opportunity. As a result, only an estimated $9.4 million of the $24 million in federal funds in the Low-Income Household Water Assistance program has been dispersed to help residents pay their water bills and prevent shutoffs. The funding came from the federal American Rescue Plan.
“The hard times continue for many low-income families and working people who struggled to make it through the pandemic and continue to struggle to make ends meet,” said Senator Cruz-Perez (D-Camden/Gloucester). “They shouldn’t be forced to choose between food on the table or paying their water bills when there is a program designed to help. The utilities should be actively working to increase participation so the available assistance can get into the hands of those who need it.”
The bill, S-3333, would prohibit water companies that don’t participate in the program from shutting off service or placing a lien on the property of customers who qualify for the assistance. The bill would also require water service providers to inform their customers of the availability of the program in “clear and conspicuous” language on their water bills and websites.
In addition, both utilities and the DCA would be required to share information with each other. Utilities would be required to inform the DCA about which customers are in arrears to help the department identify customers that may already be in the system in order to distribute the money faster. Additionally, the DCA would be required to let the utilities know which customers have been approved every 2 weeks.
The measure would also have the Department of Community Affairs, which runs the program, and the Board of Public Utilities notify water companies of the bill’s requirements.
An estimated 148,000 households in New Jersey owe more than $45 million in unpaid water bills to the investor-owned utilities; this means the actual total of unpaid water bills is much higher. The state has distributed only an estimated $9.4 million to fewer than 3,400 households to date.
The bill was released from the Senate with a vote of 35-0.