The Philadelphia Water Department will launch a discount program for low-income residents under legislation passed Thursday by City Council.
The bill, which Mayor Nutter's office has said he will sign, lays the foundation for income-based billing and debt-forgiveness options. The program could be operational by summer 2017.
"Some of us feel that water is a right and that everyone should have access to it," Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, who introduced the bill, said on the Council floor after it passed Thursday.
Water affordability is a pressing problem in Philadelphia, where 40 percent of payers are behind on their bills and delinquent payments total $259 million.
The department's current low-income program offers debt-payment plans as well as annual grants for approved payers - often a few hundred dollars - spread over monthly bills. Just 7,200 payers are enrolled (as opposed to 61,000 enrolled in a similar program offered by the Philadelphia Gas Works), due in part to high barriers to entry, advocates say.
The details of the program will be hashed out under the administration of Mayor-elect Jim Kenney. But the legislation passed Thursday requires that it base a household's bill payments on its annual income.
The legislation allows for the department to offer debt forgiveness to those with overdue bills who pay on time going forward.
It's still unknown if the new program will result higher rates for Philadelphians who aren't enrolled. Quiñones Sánchez has said she believes the program can be instituted without resulting in a rates increase, in part because making bills more affordable will increase overall compliance. But water department officials have said they expect the program will result in a rate increase.
The program will be open to those at up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or $36,375 for a family of four. Those up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or $60,625 for a family of four, will be eligible for a discount similar to the one currently offered by the Water Department.
"Far too many of our clients are living without water," said Rob Ballenger of Community Legal Services, which advocates for and represents poor Philadelphians. "This is of tremendous significance and importance to our low-income clients."
Council members also took the following actions Thursday:
Quiñones Sánchez criticized the anticipated city decision to roll back the policy barring city police and prison officials from cooperating with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Nutter instituted the "sanctuary city" policy by executive order in 2014. Officials have proposed a new policy that would allow local-federal cooperation if a suspect is accused of murder, rape, robbery, domestic violence, illegal possession of a firearm, or involvement in terrorism.
Quiñones Sánchez, in a speech on the Council floor, questioned why Nutter, "when he's wrapping up in the last few weeks, feels the need" to make a change.
"It really sets us back," she said.
Council passed legislation, introduced by Kenyatta Johnson, that will add an additional $2 million to the city's Housing Trust Fund, which provides grants to eligible homeowners for home repairs aimed at energy conservation.