LAWRENCE — Two months into his time with the Department of Public Works, newly appointed water and sewer commissioner Brian Peña is overseeing a crackdown on residents who are delinquent on their water bills.
In the three days leading up to July 1, the city collected $45,000 in back payments, after shutting the water off on about 50 residents. Peña said so many people are behind on their water bills that he is concentrating on the worst offenders first. A thousand account holders owe the city a combined $1.5 million in overdue water bills, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Of the 11,500 people served by city water, 2,500 are behind by at least six months. Beyond that, the city has not come up with definitive numbers on how many bills have gone unpaid.
In many cases, Peña said, it is landlords who are in control of the bills, but their tenants end up facing the consequences.
“We don’t want to punish them … but at some point it becomes financially nonviable for the department to operate that way,” Peña said. “We still have to balance the budget. The only other thing we can do is raise the water rate, so the only people it really effects are the people who do pay their water bill, and it’s really not fair at all.”
Peña said he and his staff have made an effort to get the shutoff notices into the right hands. The first notice goes to the address associated with the account, which could be a landlord’s. If the city does not receive a response within 15 days, the second notice is physically posted on the property, so that tenants are aware their water could be shut off if their landlord doesn’t pay the bill. After another two week window, the city will shut off the water.