Community helps people pay water bills

by Allison Miller
Carrboro Commons Co-Editor

An increase in rates from the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, paired with national economic troubles, means that the Inter-Faith Council is seeing more clients who are having trouble paying their water bills.

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Kristin Lavergne, community services director for the Inter-Faith Council, poses inside the organization’s building at 110 W. Main St. in Carrboro.
Staff photo by Allison Miller

In response, the council and OWASA are telling more people about Taste of Hope, an option for OWASA customers to help those who can’t make ends meet. Although OWASA made the option available 11 years ago, the organization is still spreading the word.

“We did a fairly intense campaign in the fall,” said Greg Feller, public affairs administrator at OWASA. “We’re glad we gained over 150 donors (since August).”

As of December, the program had 1,147 donors, about 6 percent of OWASA’s accounts, said Feller. These donors give about $7,000 per year, he added.
The publicity effort included newspaper advertisements and endorsements from the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, the Chapel Hill Town Council and the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

Feller said the program began in 1997, stemming out of an idea at an OWASA board meeting.

When customers join Taste of Hope, their monthly OWASA bill is rounded up to the nearest dollar; so $38.25 becomes $39, with the extra 75 cents going into a fund managed by the council. With 12 months in a year, the maximum annual donation for an OWASA customer is less than $12.

Bigger donations can also be made directly to the council.

“IFC is the agency that decides how to use the funds,” Feller said, noting that the way OWASA is structured prevents it from directly distributing Taste of Hope funds.

Kristin Lavergne, the council’s community services director, said the organization is seeing more demand for its services. In December, 10 more people than usual were requesting appointments to examine their finances each week, said Lavergne.

“We’re seeing a lot of new people,” she said.

At the appointments, IFC staff review the client’s finances, suggest ways the person could save money, and offer assistance when warranted.

“We ask about their whole household picture even if they come in for help with an OWASA bill,” Lavergne said. “The reality is for some people, they’re always kind of living on the edge.”

In 2008, the IFC had 207 requests for help with paying utility bills, though Lavergne wasn’t sure how many of those requests were for water bills.

The council has programs and funds to help with various household expenses, but the money generated through Taste of Hope is the only one that helps people pay their water bills.

“We do like clients to contribute something (towards the bill),” said Lavergne. “We don’t really have a hard and fast amount, but we do have a limit of once a year.”

The most a household can receive from Taste of Hope is around $150, Lavergne said, adding that the rules are flexible.

“We’re not going to let someone get disconnected over $20 if they don’t have it.”

Visit the OWASA Web site to sign up for the program.

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