Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez and Assemblywoman Annettee Quijano | December 20, 2021 | Star-Ledger |
Water is the most critical necessity we need to live. In fact, it has been fundamental to nearly every living thing that has graced this good Earth. Most of us take for granted that we can turn on the faucet and have clean water in an instant for pennies or that our wastewater just goes down the drain, yet during this pandemic more and more of our family, friends and neighbors have been unable to pay their water and sewer bills. While the fortunate among us will soon be ringing in the New Year and looking forward to the better times ahead, many of us are a calendar page turn away from having our water and sewer services turned off.
Back in May, when the optimism of the vaccine rollout was hitting full steam, Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature wisely decided to extend the moratorium for water and sewer utilities, as well as gas and electric, through Dec. 31 so that the most burdened members of our communities could work with the utilities to create payment plans that would allow them to dig out of the financial troubles and keep these essential utilities serving their homes. Unfortunately, many of those customers who have been unable to pay these bills are unaware of these payment plans and that the protections on water shutoffs will end in the new year.
The sheer number of these customers unable to pay their water bills alone is staggering — and it really shows the divide between those still bearing the greatest burden of the pandemic and those who are seemingly staying afloat or even doing better than before. For Camden County residents, water customers owed about $3.7 million as of October 2021, with more than half of those customers overdue by four months or more. In Elizabeth, as of September 2021, 4,445 families were overdue on their water bills, representing 32% of all residential customers. Nearly three-quarters of those were at least four months late and owed a total of nearly $1.5 million. Statewide, the best estimates are that New Jersey families owe $115 million in water bills that are overdue by four months or more.
The protections for water and sewer customers can be extended if we act fast. This is why we’ve introduced S4081/ A6115 and have been actively lobbying our colleagues to get it on the governor’s desk before the end of the year. If enacted before Jan. 1, a water or sewer utility could not shut off any residential service until March 15, bringing it in line with protections afforded to gas and electric customers already under the state’s Winter Termination Program.
The Winter Termination Program is a safety net that ensures that those who cannot afford to pay their utility bills are protected from being thrown out of their homes in the cold of the winter. To be clear, these customers will have to eventually pay their outstanding bills unless they are eligible for any financial assistance from the state, but unfortunately, there is not much out there for water and sewer bill payment support like there is for gas and electricity.
It is not in anybody’s interest to put people on the streets or have them struggling to survive in a home without the basic needs of life like clean drinking and bathing water, or a place for that dirty water to then go. Doing so would merely create a chain of negative consequences that we know leads to a greater likelihood of homelessness, health complications and eventual dependence on state-sponsored safety-net programs.
The Winter Termination Program does not currently provide protections that keep the water flowing in and dirty water flowing out for customers during the winter. And anybody who has had their water go out for just one day understands that a house without running water is not a place where anybody can live for long — and definitely not thrive.
Our bill will fill this hole in our safety net by bringing water and sewer shutoff protections into the Winter Termination Program to ensure that our residents will continue to have the necessities of life in their homes during the coldest times of the year. This is a bill that should be of importance to everybody in New Jersey and we are committed to having this enacted immediately because it is simply the moral and right thing to do.
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