ROTTERDAM, NY (NEWS10) – The coffers for COVID relief are quickly drying up as the world begins to bounce back, but people across New York are still looking for any help they can get.
“We just went through a year of high inflation and so people were looking to see — because maybe their budgets were down a little bit — to see if there was any financial assistance that the state or local government could give them,” he says. Rotterdam City Supervisor Mollie Collins.
Collins says the city board voted Sept. 14 to select New York State’s Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP). It’s part of the American Rescue Plan that allows people to apply for federal dollars to help pay their water bills.
“They may have expected that we could get money into people quickly, and like anything with government, it moves slowly and rules and regulations have to be changed,” says Deputy Superintendent Jack Dodson. “As we keep going in, there are more and more caveats to the program, more red tape.”
City ordinances currently conflict with program guidelines. For example, Rotterdam splits its water bills to have debt service billed in January and operations, maintenance and usage in June. However, LIHWAP only covers usage and city ordinance says Rotterdam cannot accept partial payments.
Bills also must be paid by the end of the month they are received, and although the city voted in 2022 to extend the June billing deadline to July 31, that still had no chance of using the COVID aid.
“After that, payments cannot be accepted according to our code. So that means if the state were to reimburse someone and the check came months later, we have no way to accept it,” Collins explained to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.
That’s exactly what happened to Forrest Peck, who applied to pay his June 2022 water bill from LIHWAP, but it wasn’t approved until November. He says he didn’t realize Rotterdam had denied the state payment until he received January’s property taxes on Friday that listed about $1,194 in “unpaid water rent.”
“When I got the approval letter, I was assuming the city got a payment and I would have my normal tax,” says Peck.
“You’re trying your best to stay afloat and when you get help, the city says oh, too bad we didn’t get it in enough time, so I can’t really say what I want,” he says. frustrated.
Collins and Dodson say if they want residents to get any help on this June’s bills before the program ends in September 2023, the board must first vote to change local laws. They say they are looking to see how other municipalities have effectively used the program, such as the City of Schenectady, which already uses LIHWAP and bills residents quarterly.
“We’re talking to the state to see if there’s any flexibility on their end, and then on our end to maybe revise or change some of the regulations that we have to allow that to happen. We have to find a way to improve it,” says Dodson.
“We’re also talking to our tax receiver and our assessor, specifically the tax receiver, who has to follow our code about when we can have meetings, when we can accept money and cut off dates,” says Collins.
Unfortunately, though, that means the 2022 bills are a wash.
“From all my reading on the state website, I wouldn’t qualify because now it’s put on my tax, so now it’s part of a tax charge and it’s no longer a water bill,” Peck says.