Rotterdam says local laws block pandemic assistance program for water bills


ROTTERDAM, N.Y. (NEWS10) — The COVID relief coffers are quickly running dry as the world starts turning again, but people across New York are still looking for any help they can get.

“We just came through a year of high inflation, and so people were looking to see—because maybe their budget had fallen a little short—to see if there was any financial help that the state or the local government could give them,” says Rotterdam Town Supervisor Mollie Collins.

Collins says the town board voted September 14 to opt in to the New York State Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP). It’s part of the American Rescue Plan allowing people to apply for federal dollars to help pay their water bills.

“They may have expected that geez, we can infuse cash into the people quickly, and as with anything with government, it moves slowly, and rules and regulations need to be changed,” says Deputy Supervisor Jack Dodson. “As we continue to get in, there’s more and more caveats to the program, more bureaucracy.”

Town ordinances currently conflict with the program’s guidelines. For example, Rotterdam splits its water bills to have debt service billed in January and operations and maintenance and usage billed in June. However, LIHWAP only covers usage and town ordinance says Rotterdam can’t accept partial payments.

Bills also have to be paid by the end of the month they’re received, and although the town voted in 2022 to have the June bill deadline extended to July 31, that still fell short of any opportunity to utilize the COVID assistance.

“After that, the payments cannot be accepted per our code. So that means if the state were to reimburse somebody and the check came in months later, we have no way to accept it,” Collins explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

That’s exactly what happened to Forrest Peck who applied to have his June 2022 water bill paid by LIHWAP, but didn’t get approved until November. He says he didn’t realize Rotterdam had rejected the state payout until he received his January property taxes Friday that listed around $1,194 in “unpaid water rents”.

“When I got the approval letter, I was assuming that the town received a payment and I would have my normal tax,” Peck says.

“You’re trying your best to do what you can to stay afloat, and when you do get help, the town says oh well too bad we didn’t get it in enough time so I can’t really say what I wanna,” he says, frustrated.

Collins and Dodson say if they want residents to have any help on this June’s bills before the program expires September 2023, the board needs to vote first to change local laws. They say they’re looking to see how other municipalities have effectively utilized the program, like the City of Schenectady which already utilizes LIHWAP and bills residents quarterly.

“We are speaking with the state to see if there’s any flexibility on their part, and then on ours to revise or change maybe some of the regulations that we have to allow this to occur. We need to find a way to streamline it,” says Dodson.

“We are also speaking to our receiver of taxes and our assessor, especially the receiver of taxes, who has to follow our code for when we can have collections, when we can accept money, and cut off dates,” says Collins.

Unfortunately though, that means 2022 bills are a wash. 

“From all my reading on the state website, I would not qualify because now it’s put onto my tax so now it’s part of a tax levy and it’s no longer a water bill,” Peck says.

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