There is little more disabling to a resident than coming home to find the water shut off. Unfortunately, many poor Virginians are facing that prospect as protections put in place to prevent shut-offs during COVID are now expiring.
To assist high-poverty families struggling with water and sewer bills post-COVID, the federal government in 2021 approved more than $1.1 billion for a program known as LIHWAP (low income household water assistance program). Each state received a share of these funds to help the poor bring their water and sewer bills up to date and avoid shut-off.
That money is being put to good use in most states. Here in Virginia, however, not a single cent has been distributed.
According to a fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as of March 30, 2022, 41 states and over 56 tribes had implemented their programs and started fund distribution. In Virginia, however, the program still hasn’t gotten off the ground.
The commonwealth received nearly $22.5 million in 2021 to get LIHWAP up and going, with $10 million of that money coming from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The state’s initial estimate was that the program would be operational by April 2022. As we enter the month of September, people still can’t apply to access these funds.
The number of those affected by the state’s failure to get the program moving is not inconsequential.
In Stafford County, as of June 9, there were 5,123 accounts listed as 30-or-more days delinquent; 2,378 listed at 60+ days, and 1,585 at 90+ days. Accounts that are 90 days delinquent or more are most at risk of having their service disconnected.
The total amount due in Stafford County for accounts 90 or more days overdue? More than $627,000.
In Spotsylvania County, 3,585 accounts are 30-or-more days delinquent as of Aug. 30; 1,341 are listed at 60+ days, and 456 are at 90+ days.
The Free Lance–Star reached out to Denise Surber, energy assistance program manager with the Virginia Department of Social Services, to ask why the state has been so slow in launching this program.
She acknowledged via email through a spokesperson that things were off to a slow start, but she offered no explanation beyond “contractual delays have resulted in the planned launch to be moved to September 2022.”
Were the delays the fault of the state? The company the state is contracting with?
And why have 41 other states managed to get their programs up and running, including the programs in North Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania?
Benjamin Litchfield wants to know why, too.
“When I assumed the role of Aquia District Utilities Commissioner” on June 7, he told The Free Lance–Star, “it appeared that Virginia DSS was still negotiating vendor agreements and had yet to decide how to implement the program. … I’ve been pestering county staff about the status of this program ever since.”
On June 9, Litchfield asked Christopher Edwards of the Stafford County Department of Public Works what he knew about progress on the program.
Edwards forwarded Litchfield a summary from Deidre Jett, budget manager for the department. Citing Surber, Jett wrote: “the vendor agreement should be sent out by the end of the week.”
As for when the state would implement the program? Jett noted that “In regards to timing and how the program will work (manual versus electronic), not much progress since the last meeting [with the state DSS office].”
It is clear from Litchfield’s efforts that from April to June, the state DSS office had been dragging its feet. Has it done better since?
Apparently not, as Surber is still talking about a “planned launch” in September.
Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger is equally frustrated. “It is unacceptable that it has taken this long … and I am closely following for updates on the expected implementation timeline.”
In our region, the difference between having water tomorrow and not having water for many of our poorer residents lies in getting this program off the ground.
Surber’s suggestion to those waiting for that to happen? A laundry list of other groups to track down. People, she said, should seek “additional assistance from community partners, community action agencies, and non-profit organizations.”
Those in need shouldn’t have to do this. Not when the money is in place to ensure that water is flowing through the pipes in their homes tomorrow.