Water shut-offs triple due to unpaid bills

A spike in the number of Island homeowners having their water shut off may be a stark indication of troubled economic times.

According to city of Mercer Island officials, the utility billing department has had nearly three times the usual amount of bills past due for Island homes this fall. Finance Director Chip Corder said during a utility board meeting last week that an unusual increase in a lack of payments has led to a coinciding increase in the number of shut-offs. Typically, the city sends out tags or shut-off notices to about 30 homeowners each month to warn them of coming shut-offs for a late payment. But in the past couple of months, that number has increased from 30 to 45 to 90 in September.

Suzanne Riddell, the city’s utility billing supervisor, said she suspects the country’s spreading economic woes are the reason for the increase, although she can’t be sure. She said that the average number of shut-offs has remained consistent over the years, and the two recent consecutive jumps in the number of delinquent accounts may end up being a fluke. Regardless, the increases can’t be ignored.

“This is a lot more shut-offs than I normally do,” said Riddell. “It is very rare that we would even have one or two meters shut off at the same time for nonpayment, and right now we have 15 off and the meters locked.”

There are about 7,100 water meters for the Island’s single family homes. While water consumption varies greatly during the summer, the average Islander uses about 1,500 cubic feet of water in a 60-day billing cycle during winter months, Riddell said. There are 748 gallons per 100 cubic feet (CCF).

According to Riddell, Islanders with a shut-off warning typically take two weeks to pay their bill after they receive notice and have service restored. Many might have been on vacation, she said, or just simply forgot to pay.

But the number of meters that have remained shut off for a long period of time has jumped. That might signal an increase in the number of foreclosed homes or simply that more Islanders are struggling to pay the bills. Riddell said there are a few Island homes that have had the water shut off for more than a year. Liens for these unpaid bills are attached to the property by the city after six months of nonpayment. As of last week, Riddell said there are a total of 10 Island homes with utility liens against their property.

“That’s a long-term shutoff,” Riddell explained, “it means the home is vacant.

This is due to the economy, she continued. These are people that just down right can’t afford it.”

The billing for water use is structured similar to that for electricity and natural gas; different consumption levels are charged a different rate. Single family homes that use more than 17 to 24 CCF in a billing cycle are surcharged an extra $0.10 per CCF in the summer months, which is from June 1 to Sept. 30. Those that use more than 24 CCF in the summer are surcharged an extra $0.30 per CCF. This conservation surcharge is a usage-based assessment charged to larger water users and is designed to encourage Islanders to practice responsible water use. It also helps pay for a conservation program.

Islanders with questions about their utility bills are encouraged to call city services representatives at (206) 275-7783 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

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