Alcosan’s sewage bill assistance program slow to gain traction, raising questions
Allegheny County Sanitary Authority rates are rising, but a customer assistance program to help low-income residents pay their sewage bills has been slow to catch on, leaving some to question whether the program could be administered more effectively.
Alcosan’s Clean Water Assistance Fund offers grants that cut the average $447 yearly sewage bill by $128.
As of Oct. 11, about a third — $316,178 — of the initial $1 million set aside for the fund has been distributed to low-income customers in the authority’s 83 service areas across much of Allegheny County and small sections of Westmoreland County, according to records provided by the Dollar Energy Fund, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit manages utility assistance programs across Western Pennsylvania.
Aly Shaw, an environmental justice organizer with the advocacy group Pittsburgh United, questioned whether Alcosan and Dollar Energy have done enough to reach customers who could benefit from the program.
“While Alcosan has this great, pretty expensive marketing campaign for their Clean Water Plan — you see these billboards with people standing in the rivers — they don’t really put the same amount of money into marketing these programs for low-income people,” Shaw said.
Alcosan does not dedicate specific funds to marketing the Clean Water Assistance Fund and does not market the fund through billboards or print ads, said Joey Vallarian, director of communications for Alcosan.
Alcosan spends about $1.5 million on marketing each year, but Vallarian would not detail how much the authority spends on specific marketing campaigns. The authority’s total operating budget in 2019 was $94.5 million.
“We push this program at all outreach events we take part in, work with our member municipalities so they can relay the info to their residents, and when possible, talk about the program in the press,” Vallarian said in an email.
The $2 billion bill
The Clean Water Assistance Fund was created to assist customers as Alcosan hiked rates to pay for the Clean Water Plan, a $2 billion public works project to fix decades-old problems of area waterways being polluted from sewer and stormwater overflow.
Steps already underway include increasing the capacity of the Alcosan wastewater treatment plant on the Ohio River in Pittsburgh’s Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood and a $200 million investment in municipal sewage projects.
Since the Clean Water Assistance Fund launched in January 2017, Dollar Energy received 3,010 applications for grants and 2,584 were awarded. The fund received 534 applications in its first year, increasing to 1,003 applications in 2018. As of Oct. 11, Dollar Energy Fund received 1,473 applications in 2019, records show.
“It’s alarming that three years later, you don’t see as many people accessing the program as one would think would naturally sign up and would need it,” said Brad Korinski, chief legal counsel for the Allegheny County Controller’s Office.
Both the authority and other arms of county government need to do more to reach out to eligible customers, he said, adding that the controller’s office will be adding information about the program to its website.
“I think it would be a shame if someone who is eligible is paying money that they really don’t have, and there is a program out there to assist them,” Korinski said. “That would seem to be a rather stark failure of government.”
Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O’Connor, vice chairman of the Alcosan board of directors, said it’s a matter of improving the Alcosan website and educating more people about enrolling in the program.
“Times are tough, and we want to be supportive of our constituent base,” O’Connor said.
As the rates rise
The Clean Water Assistance Fund is open to ratepayers — renters or homeowners, as long as an individual’s name is on the bill — whose incomes are 150% of the poverty level. For a household of four people, that’s a monthly income of less than $3,219 or an annual income of less than $38,625, according to guidelines posted to the Alcosan website.
In 2019, the program discounted bills by $32 each quarter — a 28% discount on the average $111.97 quarterly bill, which included a quarterly Alcosan service charge of $16.69. An additional usage charge of $7.94 per 1,000 gallons of water used was added on top of that.
“Which isn’t a lot, and a flat rate like that only means it’s going to be less effective as Alcosan rates go up,” Shaw of Pittsburgh United said. She added that offering customers a discount on a percentage of their bills might be more helpful.
Since the program launched in 2017, Alcosan increased the discount from $30 to $32, records show.
Alcosan bills 315,000 sites throughout the City of Pittsburgh, most of Allegheny County and small portions of Westmoreland County, but could not provide details on how many are residences or businesses.
The authority does not collect demographic data on customers that could be eligible for the program and relies on the Dollar Energy to manage the day-to-day operations of the program, Vallarian said.
The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as SNAP, or food stamps, is open to people with similar income levels. According to guidelines posted by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, a household of four people with a monthly income of $2,270 could qualify for food stamps through Sept. 2019.
Census data from 2018 show that 69,970 households in Allegheny County — which includes portions of the county not served by Alcosan — received food stamps in the past 12 months. In the City of Pittsburgh, 24,974 households received food stamps.
“I think the people who we deal with are people who operate on a crisis basis,” said Susan Motycki, director of universal services for Holy Family Institute, one of several organizations that work with Dollar Energy to screen applicants for the Clean Water Assistance Fund. “One week, your electricity is in jeopardy and you put that fire out. And next it’s your gas, and you put that fire out.”
Holy Family tries to make it as easy as possible for people to enroll programs like the Clean Water Assistance Fund and other utility relief programs by offering walk-in service without appointments, Motycki said. But many people are dealing with more immediate concerns, like feeding their families.
Others don’t even realize that they’re Alcosan customers, let alone know anything about the grant.
“The biggest barrier for this one is that people don’t realize that they are an Alcosan customer because of how they’re billed,” said Jody Robertson, director of communications for Dollar Energy, comparing the program to other utility relief programs managed by Dollar Energy.
Most Alcosan customers are not billed directly by Alcosan. Rather, charges are included in a bill sent by their municipal water authority.
Dollar Energy has reached out to municipal water authorities to promote the program and relies on partnerships with organizations like Holy Family to help get the word out, Robertson said. Many applications are generated when people sign up for other utility relief programs managed by Dollar Energy.
Dollar Energy does not have budget dedicated to advertising the Clean Water Assistance Fund, Robertson said.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .