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As the coronavirus pandemic spreads through Kentucky, we bring you the latest on death rates, risks of reopening and how it was affecting the commonwealth's most vulnerable.

Thousands In Louisville At Risk Of Utility Shutoffs When Moratorium Ends

Tens of thousands of Louisville residents have overdue bills and are at risk of losing power or water, a result of the economic downturn sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 11,400 Louisville Water Company customers and nearly 23,000 Louisville Gas and Electric customers are behind on their bills, according to spokespersons for both entities.

Each utility instituted a moratorium on disconnections due to nonpayment in early March, a week after Gov. Andy Beshear declared a state of emergency. In May, Beshear, issued an order suspending utility disconnections statewide for the duration of the state of emergency. It’s not known when the moratoriums, or the state of emergency, will be over.

The sheer number of people who have fallen into delinquent status on their utility bill provides a glimpse into the broader economic crisis unfolding in Louisville and across the country. The city’s unemployment rate is near 12%, nearly three times higher than the beginning of the year. Many who’ve kept their jobs have seen their hours cut, or been forced to scale back work time to tend to children or keep a strict quarantine.

Now, as the coronavirus’s grip on the nation rolls into its fourth month and the number of positive infections climb, housing advocates and community service providers worry about the bills that keep coming, and the people who cannot afford to pay.

“We’ve never seen numbers this big,” said Kelley Dearing Smith, spokesperson for the Louisville Water Company.

In pre-pandemic months, about 2,000 water company customers were subject to disconnections each month, Smith said. Now, the number of delinquent accounts peaked at more than 13,100 in early June. The delinquent accounts are spread across the county, she said.

About 7,000 Louisville Water customers currently behind on their bill regularly pay on time or have missed just one payment before now and more than 600 business accounts are delinquent, Smith said.

The numbers are similar at LG&E, where the number of delinquent accounts is nearly 76% higher than last year's average, said Natasha Collins, spokesperson for the provider.

Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, said the scope of delinquency indicates the economic fallout from the pandemic is deep and disrupting.

“If we have double or triple the number of people that are delinquent on their utilities, it’s a different problem,” Hinko said.

A problem, she said, that will have a lasting impact on people and the city.

Assistance Available

The surging number of customers unable to pay their water bill prompted water company officials last month to begin offering payment plans, Smith said. This is a first for the agency that provides water to more than 275,000 residential and commercial customers across the Louisville Metro area.

“COVID gave us the push we needed,” she said.

Now, customers behind on their bills can chip away at their past due accounts with incremental payments over time, Smith said. And some customers can qualify for direct aid from community nonprofits or government agencies with funds set aside for utility payment, she said.

Smith fears as consumption continues, and bills pile up, some people may fall far behind and miss other necessary payments, too.

“It’s a very cumulative effect,” she said. “Chances are if you’re behind on your rent, or your LG&E bill, you’re also behind on water.”

She said the interest-free, no fee payment plan program will continue after the pandemic subsides.

City officials are also designating funding to assist residents struggling to pay utility bills. Qualifying households can receive up to $1,000 to help pay bills and other needed expenses, like rent or childcare, with payments made directly to service providers, said Cassandra Miller, program manager with the city’s Department of Community Services.

Louisville Metro received more than $42 million from the federal government through the CARES Act to assist with pandemic relief. Half of that money is set aside for eviction prevention, and other household needs, such as utility payments, can be covered with the funds. 

“We want to help people,” Miller said.

And people need help, said Marlon Cummings, the executive director of Jeffersontown Area Ministries.

He said area community ministry agencies in four months have doled out more than $200,000 in water bill assistance, far more than what’s provided during normal times.

He sees need beyond utility bill payments, as well. His agency is handing out nearly double the amount of meals each week. And the phones seem to ring constantly — people calling for help, many for the first time.

Just asking for help is difficult, Cummings said. But now, perhaps more than ever, it’s necessary.

Cummings said for many people, it’s not yet clear when, or if, they will be able to get back to work. Thousands more are still waiting for unemployment benefits to arrive.

“It’s bad,” Cummings said. “People are searching for some type of hope.”

Contact Jacob Ryan at jryan@kycir.org.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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