Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Discussion over the City of Wilmington’s water bills takes off ahead of the Mayor’s budget address

Quinn Kirkpatrick
Delaware Public Media

Wilmington City Council Member Shané Darby seeks to address water affordability in the city ahead of Mayor Mike Purzycki’s budget address.

One addresses foreclosing on homes for failing to pay water, stormwater, or sewage bills - effectively banning the Department of Finance from including overdue water utility fees, and any associated interest, penalties, and costs from failure to pay, in foreclosure actions on owner-occupied properties.

Earlier this month, City Finance Director Brett Taylor opposed this approach - noting the City could face a lower bond rating, and other residents may bear the burden of the lost revenue.

“Monitions and water shut offs are really the only true enforcement arms that we have. However, if we were to look at the data over the course of the last 8 years, we have only taken 44 properties to Sheriff's sale that were for water utility only,” said Taylor.

Owing at least $10,000 in unpaid property taxes, utility bills and/or City fees puts a property at risk of foreclosure.

Darby’s legislation is not seeking to forgive the debt, but find alternative ways to obtain payment of unpaid utility bills that would not result in a resident losing their home.

Of the 44 properties foreclosed upon in the past 8 years, less than half were owner-occupied. The majority were rental, vacant, or commercial properties - which the legislation does not address.

To that point, Darby argues that the potential financial impact on the City resulting from not foreclosing on homes to collect unpaid debt is much smaller than originally anticipated.

Another ordinance she’s offering aims to address the other enforcement arm Taylor outlined: water shut offs.

Sub. 1 to Ord. 23-034 would exempt elderly and disabled residents, and residences with children under the age of five, from having their water shut off due to not paying their bills.

Darby says the legislation aims to avoid forcing vulnerable populations to live without water.

“This ordinance is saying do not cut off water. That’s it,” said Darby. “It’s not saying don’t seek payment, do not try to get the payment from them, it’s not saying they’re not responsible for it. It is simply saying do not cut off their water. That’s it.”

Kiandra McDole is a new mother, and relies on her home's water supply to feed her infant.

“I currently don’t go to the store and buy baby water because I can’t afford it. So I boil water for my baby’s bottles to make formula,” said McDole. “So imagine cutting off a mother’s water in her home. And she doesn’t have the money to go out and buy gallons of water to make her infant’s meal. She won’t be able to feed her child.”

She adds making sure kids have the resources to bathe before/after school, or even just drink a glass of water at any given time, is critical.

Darby is also proposing an Affordable Water Program to help keep residents from reaching the point of delinquency that triggers a water shut off, and to help keep them from reaching the $10,000 threshold that puts their home at risk of foreclosure.

Unlike the current Water Utility Assistance Program, which Darby says only offers assistance after 3 months of delinquency, the Affordable Water Program would help residents pay their water utilities when bills are issued.

The proposed legislation authorizes the Department of Finance to establish an Affordable Water Program, and tasks it to issue its findings and recommendations to Council on how that can be done by January 1st, 2025.

All three ordinances will be up for a full council vote on April 18th.

Mayor Mike Purzycki will deliver his budget address on Thursday, March 21st.

Following the 6-year water/sewage financial plan outlined in last April's budget hearings, water bills are expected to increase by 5.7% in FY2025.

Quinn Kirkpatrick was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, and graduated from the University of Delaware. She joined Delaware Public Media in June 2021.