How much help do low-income Pittsburghers get on their water bills?

by Oliver Morrison, PublicSource

Two years ago, neither the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] nor the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority [ALCOSAN] was helping out many low-income customers.

“Few are using PWSA’s programs for low-income customers,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote in May 2019. PWSA at that time had signed up 2,987 customers, a fraction of its more than 100,000 customers. 

“Alcosan’s sewage bill assistance program slow to gain traction,” wrote TribLive in November 2019. ALCOSAN’s assistance program had given out 2,584 awards, an even smaller fraction of its roughly 300,000 customers.

Both programs have the same eligibility threshold. Any customer who earns 150% of the poverty level or less can sign up. And both utilities use the Dollar Energy Fund, a nonprofit that administers utility assistance programs across the country. So, in theory, a customer who calls to sign up for one program, should be able to sign up for the other during that same call. 

Since 2019, PWSA has increased participation in its assistance program by more than 50%, with 4,565 customers now signed up. ALCOSAN, by contrast, is helping fewer customers than two years ago: 2,326. That’s less than 1% of ALCOSAN’s 300,000 customers, even though around 11% of Allegheny County residents are in poverty.


Jody Robertson, the director of communications for Dollar Energy, wasn’t sure why some PWSA customers who call to sign up for assistance aren’t also signing up for assistance from ALCOSAN at the same time. It might be that customers are not aware that they are paying ALCOSAN through their local water utility bill, she said.

PWSA didn’t have an explanation for the discrepancy, but did note that its program doesn’t have as many steps to enroll: PWSA doesn’t require customers to collect a social security number or to provide documentation of their income, while ALCOSAN requires both. PWSA also only requires its customers to recertify every two years, whereas ALCOSAN requires it every year.

PWSA’s program has also become more generous. Its discount increased from $26 to $36. Now it covers almost half of an average low-income customer’s bill. 

ALCOSAN’s assistance increased in the same period by about a dollar per month. But because the rates it charges increased by even more, the discount was slightly less generous for its average customer. ALCOSAN doesn’t offer cash assistance to residents who fall behind on their bills. 

A water bill that shows a discount from PWSA but not from ALCOSAN. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki / PublicSource)



How much help do low-income Pittsburghers get on their water bills? Depends on which utility does the helping.


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