For many years, the federally–funded Low Income Household Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) has assisted customers with energy and heating bills, but no equivalent existed for water/wastewater bills until 2020. In the wake of COVID-19 and many moratoria on water and wastewater disconnections, Congress funded a Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIWHAP) as a one-time, temporary relief program to assist low income households with their water and wastewater bills in the Consolidated Appropriations Act (December 2020). In March of 2021, Congress added additional funding for LIHWAP via the American Rescue Plan Act, bringing the total funds available to over $1.1 billion. The program is administered through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the same agency that administers LIHEAP. Like LIHEAP, each state’s Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for setting up its LIHWAP structure and distributing funds for bill payment assistance. However, all state programs must follow standard guidelines:
- LIHWAP bill payments must be made directly to water and wastewater service providers on behalf of residential customers.
- LIHWAP payments are to be made in order of priority groups:
- Group 1: Households currently disconnected from services
- Group 2: Households in jeopardy of being disconnected from services
- Group 3: Households with outstanding bills that need assistance to maintain service
- LIHWAP payments can cover fees associated with disconnection/reconnection as well as late fees if those charges are part of a utility’s typical billing practices of the utility and not assessed just to LIHWAP recipients.
- Renters are eligible, but if water/wastewater bills are included in rent, program administrators must confirm the account number and amount due with the landlord (guidance here).
Although LIHWAP first received funding almost a year ago, many states have not started distributing funds because of the many hurdles to set up such a massive, one-time program. What is the status of North Carolina?
Administration of North Carolina’s LIHWAP
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services recently released information about NC LIWHAP, and there is more to come! To keep up with the most recent news, sign up for the NC water listserve.
For now, here is a summary with links to the most important information for water and wastewater providers in North Carolina.
- Read the full policy manual here.
- FAQs from September 14th can be found here.
- An updated Q and A document is in the works.
Who is eligible?
- Households that meet the criteria of priority groups 1, 2, and 3 described above with income equal to or less than 150% of the current poverty level
- Households that receive TANF, FNS, or received LIEAP benefits in FY 2020-2021 are automatically eligible (also known as “categorically eligible”)
- Applicants must be the account holder for the water/wastewater service or have a statement from the account holder and must be an adult
When will payments be made to utilities?
- Funds will be distributed to utilities by the local county Department of Social Services (DSS) office. Currently, payments are expected to start on December 1, 2021 for priority groups 1 and 2 and January 3, 2022 for priority group 3.
- Applications must be processed within 10 business days of receipt of the application to the local DSS office.
How will payments be made to utilities?
After a customer is deemed eligible, local county DSS offices will confirm with water/wastewater providers the amount needed to reconnect a household (or prevent disconnection for a household) and will send payments to the utilities via check or EFT.
How does a water/wastewater utility participate in NC LIHWAP?
- For a utility to participate in LIHWAP, staff must send a signed vendor service agreement to their local county DSS office. For a local government utility, the vendor service agreement must be approved by the utility’s governing board unless the authority to approve participation in the program has been delegated to the manager or another employee or official. The UNC EFC encourages utilities to check with a local attorney before signing a vendor service agreement.
- Although it is optional for participation in LIHWAP, the NC DHHS staff are encouraging utilities to sign a data sharing agreement and send customer information directly to the state so categorical eligibility can be determined and payments made automatically. Currently, the data match will happen once and data is due November 19th. Utilities should send their data to their local county DSS office, and their local office will send the data via zixmail to the state database. Utilities are encouraged to send a password protected spreadsheet of customer information in one email, and the password in another email. The UNC EFC encourages utilities to read this blog post by Kristina Wilson, a faculty member at the School of Government, and consult with their local attorneys before signing the data sharing agreement and/or submitting customer information. The utility will also need governing board approval to sign the data sharing agreement.
If utilities have submitted a list of customers who are disconnected (or are in danger of disconnection), NC DHHS may provide them with a list of customers who did not automatically qualify for LIHWAP. Utilities are encouraged to reach out to those customers and encourage them to apply for LIHWAP through the local county DSS office, as any customer in who is disconnected or in danger of disconnection and have an income equal to or less than 150 percent of the current poverty level may be eligible for the program (see income levels in the manual here). NC DHHS staff will provide outreach materials for utilities and local county DSS offices.