Keeping water running in Petersburg for people behind on bills

Posted at 5:54 PM, May 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-11 19:06:17-04

PETERSBURG, Va. -- State officials hope to be able to work out issues pertaining to the water supply in Petersburg. At issue is whether the City of Petersburg can re-establish water to residents who have not paid their water bill.

Over the weekend, State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver sent a letter to Petersburg that expressed his concern over people losing access to water during the COVID-19 pandemic. He requested the city re-establish water to any home that lost service.

"We have disconnected zero [during the pandemic],” Petersburg City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides said. "We still have to pay for the water we are sending to our citizens.”

It was nonpayment of utility bills that contributed to Petersburg falling into financial trouble recently.

More than 3,000 residents owe more than $3 million in debt to the city, according to Petersburg Director of Public Works & Utilities Tangela Innis.

“For us to have to buy something from someone and give it away for free is really impossible to do,” Ferrell-Benavides said.

On Monday, Petersburg Police visited 46 homes where water was allegedly turned off.

"We're going to try to meet with every individual to find out how we can work with them to get their water re-connected, but do it legally and do it in a way that won't hurt the City of Petersburg," Ferrell-Benavides said.

While Petersburg looks at the dollars and cents, Dr. Oliver and Governor Ralph Northam see it as a public health issue.

"It is unacceptable to have residents without access to running water when protection against this virus relies heavily on the ability to wash hands and other surfaces,” Governor Northam said Monday.

Petersburg City Council is set to meet Tuesday and hear from the city attorney about Dr. Oliver's letter and what, if any, steps will be taken.

Oliver pointed out that Northam declared a state of emergency over the spread of COVID-19 on March 12 and a public health emergency was declared on March 17.

Since that time, Del. Lashrecse Aird asked city officials on April 27 to come up with a plan to reconnect residents.

Officials said 730 connections were shut off because they were at least 90 days delinquent between July 2019 and January 2020. Of those 730 connections, city officials resolved about 500 of them. That leaves 230 of which 150 have not had their service restored, according to Oliver. The variance is because more than 100 connections were restored illegally, according to officials.

Oliver and Northam worked with Del. Lashrecse Aird, Congressman Donald McEachin and Attorney General Mark Herring to make sure none of the city's residents are without water during the COVID-19 crisis.

Forty-five cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Petersburg, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Four new cases were reported since Saturday's update.

Depend on CBS 6 News and for the most complete coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Precautions

Most patients with COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms. However, in a small proportion of patients, COVID-19 can lead to more severe illness, including death, particularly among those who are older or those who have chronic medical conditions.

COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Symptoms include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. Symptoms appear within 14 days of being exposed to an infectious person.

Virginia health officials urged the following precautions:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer only if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.Stay home when you are sick.
  • Avoid contact with sick people.Avoid non-essential travel.