Local Advocacy Groups Band Together to Keep Residents’ Light, Water on
Utilities for All, Sunrise Movement Cleveland and InterReligious Task Force on Central America (IRTF) have joined forces to push for more affordable utility rates and a moratorium on shut-offs from Cleveland Public Power and Cleveland’s Division of Water.
The groups have a raft of complaints: negotiated payment plans are unrealistic, customers have to wait too long to get assistance on the telephone, and the utilities’ websites aren’t helpful. Their first goal is to get the city of Cleveland to reinstate a formal moratorium on disconnections for those who can’t pay their bills. The city originally instituted the moratorium when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of last year, but the city lifted it in early December. (You can view the petition on Facebook here.)
Pearl Chen, a fellow with IRTF and volunteer with the Utilities for All, said a letter was sent to the city regarding concerns about accountability and transparency on utility shut-offs in early December 2020, but the groups have not received a response.
“Specifically, we’re demanding a moratorium on utility companies to make sure that people aren’t getting shut off due to underpayment (missed payments) throughout the entire pandemic plus the six months afterward to deal with all the economic fallout that people will still be reeling from,” Chen said.
A call for answers
The group also wrote to Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson to request public records in an effort to find out the number of customers who have delinquent accounts and the number of people who have received disconnection notices, but the group has not yet received a response.
There were roughly 90,000 Cleveland water customers and 28,500 CPP customers who were behind on their bills back in early Nov. 2020, according to records provided by the city. That number hasn’t improved, with 91,000 city water customers behind on their bills as of Feb. 1, 2021, according to more recent city records.
All of those customers have the potential to get disconnected, according to Chen. There have been no shut-offs since the moratorium ended, said Brian Kazy, Ward 16 councilman and chair of the city council utilities committee but that doesn’t preclude shut-offs in the future.
Despite a legal requirement, the city admitted to Utilities for All last year that CPP didn’t have an active review board, Chen said. Jackson said the city would put together a board in early 2020. No action has been taken, according to the advocacy group.
“A city law requires that an active review board be in place to hear appeals from people who receive disconnection notices,” said Chen. “There is, actually, no system for payment plans in place. Often, people who need assistance in paying or have been shut off are required to pay an amount to get reconnected that is set arbitrarily. Often, this amount is too high.”
“We do recognize that the public utilities are underfunded in this city, and we do highly support public utilities as a whole,” she added. “They need more resources, more funding and more accountability to deal with any sort of mismanagement. They rely too heavily on revenue from consumers, which is related to them not providing better support to people who need assistance with payment.”
According to Kazy, there are working review boards that are active at both utilities; unfortunately, he said they are not equally utilized by consumers.
“There’s one set up with CPP, which consumers tend to use infrequently. It’s possible we need to better communicate its availability. In the last five years only one person disputed a CPP bill to the review board,” Kazy said. “As the chair for the utility commission for the city of Cleveland, I’ll make a pledge that the city does a better job of letting residents know that both boards are there for them.”
Kazy said help is available during the pandemic.
“There are millions of dollars through COVID-19 (relief funds) to help those in need,” he said. “Anyone who calls the city and is behind on their bills can get help setting up a payment plan. Our goal is not to shut off utilities. Our goal is to provide the utility and help people to pay for it. This help will go beyond the pandemic.”
Though Chen is pleased with Kazy’s pledge, she doesn’t think the city’s review board has been functioning for a long time. She wants to know who makes up the board, how often do they meet, and how does he plan to make it more clearly available to folks? And though people haven't had their utilities shut off so far, the fact that the city won't guarantee this in writing through a moratorium means that people who are behind on their bills are subject to the whims of the city, Chen said.
A search for solutions
Larry Bresler, director of Organize Ohio and member of Utilities For All, believes once the weather gets warmer, utility shut-offs will skyrocket.
“Given the economic situation, it’s foreseeable to expect a huge number of shut-offs once the pandemic ends,” he said. “To stop that there needs to be foresight in terms of planning.”
Included in that planning would be starting something like the federal PIPP (Percentage of Income Payment Plan) program that customers of CPP could apply for if they get behind on their bills; currently, that program is only available for customers of private, state-regulated utilities.
“There’s nothing like that for CPP,” Bresler said.
For anyone in need of help, the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative has created a guide on how to apply for utility aid in Cuyahoga County and neighboring counties, including PIPP.
Utilities for All members are concerned about utility shut-offs nationally and want to avoid the fate of some other cities. For example, the cost of water in Detroit has skyrocketed in recent years, in part because of poor infrastructure, and the city has shut off water service to around 100,000 homes since 2014 for non-payment. The city instituted a shut-off moratorium during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Mayor Mike Duggan recently extended the moratorium until 2023.
Bresler said Cleveland could potentially see similar problems because of poor infrastructure.
“It has to be replaced, and the money has to come from somewhere. And it comes from jacking up the cost because the companies are underfunded,” he said. “I fear that’s what’s going to happen here.”
Kazy did not comment on the group’s letter sent to the city. But he had praise for what Cleveland has done for its residents recently.
“The city has been very generous in the past year in providing a service to the residents and everything we can to assist and assuring that no one gets shut off during this pandemic,” he said. “You are not going to find people who have been shut off in masses. You won’t find people shut off from CPP since the pandemic was declared last March. I encourage anyone that is behind not to wait to the last minute. Reach out to Cleveland Water and CPP now to get the help they need.”
A press conference scheduled by the local group for Feb. 18 was postponed because of adverse weather. The plan was to present a petition to the city of Cleveland with at least 500 signatures demanding action.
The challenge for members is getting in touch with people who have faced shut-offs to get them involved in speaking out about their experiences, Chen said.
Anyone interested in finding out more about this effort can call 216-220-7160.
This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including WKSU. Gregory Burnett is a local freelance reporter.