In Philadelphia, nearly a third of customers are past due on their water bills

Mar 18, 2021

The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), which is seeking a 17.6% rate increase over two years, has a serious problem collecting payments from its customers, and the pile of unpaid bills is growing larger as the pandemic-related recession endures.

About 154,000 customers, or nearly a third of the Water Department’s 496,000 accounts, have fallen behind on payments, according to zip code data that the Water Department submitted to the city’s Water Rate Board. In the hardest-hit zip code, the 19132 zone in North Philadelphia and Strawberry Mansion, 59% of water customers are behind on payments.

Nearly 70,000 customers have paid so little that they would face a service shutoff had the city this month not extended a moratorium on terminations until next year, to April 2022. “An extended moratorium will continue to have a negative impact on collections,” the Water Department said Tuesday in an emailed response to questions.

The highest concentrations of debt correspond with low-income neighborhoods, which was not a surprise to Robert W. Ballenger, a Community Legal Services lawyer who heads a team that serves as a public advocate on utility issues. He is well-aware of the relationship between poverty and customers’ struggles to pay for essential services and is vowing to fight the increases.

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