The City of Bethel is almost three quarters of a million dollars in the hole, and that amount is growing. That’s because the city is continuing to provide water and sewer services to households that can’t pay their bills.
Near the start of the pandemic, then-Acting City Manager Bill Howell took emergency action, deciding that the city would not shut off water to households that could not make payments. Households that already had their water and sewer shut off could opt to have it turned back on.
On Aug. 31, at a special meeting, the Bethel City Council extended that policy for another 60 days. Council member Alyssa Leary said that this was to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from getting worse in the city.
“I just imagine we’ve got folks on quarantine. Maybe they’ve got someone in the household that is actively fighting the virus, and is COVID positive, and is not able to wash their hands, and I just see this as a way that the city could really help in that aspect,” Leary said.
The total number of unpaid bills kept growing. Acting City Manager Lori Strickler reported that the city has about $700,000 of utility delinquencies.
“I do realize, you know, there’s a deficit,” said council member Cecilia “Cece” Franko. “But I don't think a pandemic is the time to be shutting off community members’ water.”
There is no clear path forward. Although Bethel received $8.4 million in CARES Act funding, Strickler said that the city can’t use the money to pay the water bills.
“CARES money cannot be used to satisfy the reimbursement of lost revenue for the city. Our CARES money can't be,” Strickler said.
But there is a potential workaround. Strickler said that individuals who receive financial aid from the city’s CARES Act grant programs could use that money to pay off their bills.
“It is our hope that through some of the granting programs offered by Bethel Community Services Foundation and Tundra Women's Coalition, in conjunction with the city's distribution of care spending, that residents and businesses will utilize those grant funds to pay for their water utility delinquencies,” Strickler said.
ONC is also using its CARES Act money to provide financial assistance to tribal members so that they can pay for utilities.
If no other solution is found, the city will just rack up a deficit until the pandemic ends. Then those individuals with unpaid bills will have their water and sewer shut off, and they’ll be stuck with the bill.
The city’s finance and public works committees will meet Sept. 16 to explore other options.