TRENTON – New Jerseyans having trouble paying past-due water bills that accumulated during the pandemic could get help from a pair of bills advancing in the Legislature – a $75 million assistance program and an extension of the shutoff moratorium.

An Assembly committee gave initial approval to a bill establishing a "Household Water Assistance Program" that would help lower-income households pay for water, sewer and stormwater utilities, funded by $75 million in federal COVID recovery money.

“This bill would protect the state’s most vulnerable residents by creating a statewide program for low-income water and wastewater customers, as well as hopefully stormwater customers in the future, that mimics and works in tandem with existing programs for electric and natural gas service,” said Diane Schrauth, policy director for New Jersey Future.

Renee Koubiadis, anti-poverty program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, said the help for families with incomes below twice the federal poverty threshold, among other ways to qualify, is essential.

“Having to rely on bottled water, traveling to access laundry, other services when your water is shut off is yet another example of what I refer to as the poor people’s tax, where it costs more for basic needs for low-income households,” Koubiadis said.

Koubiadis said safe, affordable, reliable water and sewer service is particularly important to public health during a pandemic, when frequent hand washing is recommended.

“Water access should never be treated as a luxury,” she said.

Matt Smith, regional organizer for Food and Water Watch, said such relief is urgent given past-due balances, inflation, rising COVID cases and the new virus variant.

“It’s a simple reality that unaffordable bills are often unpaid bills, and once protections expire utilities will resume the punitive measures to collect unpaid bills such as water shutoffs and tax liens,” Smith said.

The grace period for people to make payments for water and sewer services skipped during the pandemic expires at the end of December, but an Assembly panel on Monday voted for a bill that extends it to March 15. A Senate committee is due to take up that bill on Thursday.

Larry Levine, director of urban water infrastructure for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the bill is important and timely. He says the state has allotted $24 million, none of which has been disbursed, to help with hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid bills.

“There’s tremendous debt that’s accumulated for water customers during the pandemic and a very minimal financial and social safety net right now to help address that,” Levine said.

Tom Churchelow, president of the New Jersey Utilities Association, urged lawmakers should pump the brakes on taking action while regulators work on a more sustainable program.

“The investor-owned water companies were among the first in the industry to self-impose a moratorium on shutoffs, but we can’t have it going on in perpetuity,” Churchelow said.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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