Water Service Shutoffs
For a while now, times have been hard for low-income people in Iowa. Many people find themselves unable to pay their bills. This includes very important bills like electricity, gas and water supplied directly to your home. These essential services are called "utilities."
At the same time, things are also hard for cities and towns. In Iowa, utilities supplying water to people are often owned by the city where they are located. Cities are trying to bring in more money and reduce costs. Notice of possible disconnection from water service may be sent to a customer with an unpaid water bill.
Who makes the rules about water service?
It depends on who provides the service. The State of Iowa regulates water service from private companies serving 2,000 or more people. Rules are set by the Iowa Utilities Board. For smaller private companies, Utilities Board rules don't apply.
In Iowa, most people get water from the city where they live. The State of Iowa does not regulate how cities provide water. Cities do have to follow some rules, though. This will be explained later.
What if I get my water from a private company?
If your water comes from a private company serving 2,000 or more people, Iowa law gives you some important protections. The law also establishes rights and responsibilities of both customers and utility providers, including:
The utility may charge a deposit. The deposit may not be more than three months' estimated water use.
The utility must attempt to resolve your complaints promptly and courteously. If they don't, you may ask the Utilities Division of the Iowa Department of Commerce for help. The utility must tell you in writing that you may ask the Utilities Division for help.
The utility may disconnect your service if you don't pay your bill. However, they must try to collect the money you owe before they shut off your water. They must also give you at least 12 days' notice before they shut off your water. If you dispute that amount of money you owe, they must wait 45 days before disconnecting your water while the dispute is resolved. However, they can make you pay the amount that is not in dispute. If you file a complaint with the Utilities Division, the utility could have to extend this waiting period another 60 days if the state requests it.
The utility may not refuse service to you because:
- Someone who lived in your home before you owes them money (in most cases);
- You did not pay the bill for some other customer of theirs that you promised to pay;
- You did not pay your bill for some other kind of utility service (like electricity or gas).
If you think your water meter isn't working properly, the utility must test it if you ask them to. They only have to do this every 18 months, however.
It's good to remember there are different ways to pay for your water. You may pay the traditional way, which is where you pay whatever the meter says. If the meter says you used $20 worth of water then you owe $20. But if the meter says you used $200 worth of water, you'll have to pay that. But your utility may offer other ways to pay, such as a "flat rate." That is where you pay the same amount every month no mater how much you use. The law says the utility must help you figure out which method of payment is most economical for you. They may have a "budget plan" like the ones many people use for their electricity or gas bills.
What if I get my water from the city or town where I live?
As noted above, the laws do not apply to water systems owned by a city, town or county. But that does not mean municipal water services operate without having to comply with any rules or regulations. Local governments have to follow the constitutions of Iowa and the United States. Both documents say no part of the government may take anything away from anyone without "due process of law." There is also an Iowa law saying basically the same thing.
That means the municipality has to do at least two things:
- They have to give you notice. They have to tell you what the problem is, what you can do about it, and what is going to happen if you don't. In most cases, this notice should be in writing and should be delivered to the place where the utilities are being used. The notice should also tell you that you have the right to be heard on this problem, and how to get such a hearing.
- As you may have guessed already, the other thing they have to give you is an opportunity for a hearing. In most cases, this means you can ask for a hearing in front of a person called a hearing officer. A hearing officer is usually someone working for the municipality who has authority over the water department. A hearing officer is not a judge, though the hearing will probably be very much like a hearing in a regular court.
Before the hearing, you have the right to look at the records related to your account.
At the hearing you rights include:
- To be represented by a lawyer;
- To present witnesses, documents and other evidence; and
- To question the witnesses and examine documents and other evidence presented by the municipality.
Some cities may not have a written policy on hearings. City staff may possibly say there is no right to a hearing. If that happens, you may need to call a lawyer for help.
Are there government programs to help me pay my water bill?
Many people are familiar with LIHEAP - the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. This federal program assists with energy costs but does not help with water bills. Your local community action program may be able to help, however. You should also apply for help from your county's general assistance program.
What about other sources of help?
Many people find local churches to be a good source of help in an emergency. Of course, these are not government programs, and churches can make their own rules about who they help and for what.
Helping clients with consumer issues including essential services like utilities is a priority for Iowa Legal Aid. To find out if Iowa Legal Aid can assist you, call 1-800-532-1275 (se habla español). Hours for intake are 9 to 11 am and 1:30 to 3:30 pm, Monday thru Friday. If you are age 60 or over, you may be able to get free legal advice from the Legal Hotline for Older Iowans at 1-800-992-8161.