Cleveland Lifts Moratorium on Water and Power Shutoffs at Height of Pandemic, Amid Snowstorm. Unconscionable.

click to enlarge Frank Jackson (5/4/2020). - Cleveland City Hall Facebook Live Video
Cleveland City Hall Facebook Live Video
Frank Jackson (5/4/2020).

For Giving Tuesday, one thing that would be cool is if the City of Cleveland gave a shit about its residents.

Instead, we have an administration that saw fit, as the year's first snowstorm struck Monday night, to forge ahead with its announced plan to end the moratorium on water and power shutoffs. The moratorium was enacted in conjunction with Mayor Frank Jackson's proclamation of Civil Emergency in March and concludes today.

As the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative reported in Ideastream Monday, the city's decision means that 90,000 customers of Cleveland Water and 28,500 customers of Cleveland Public Power — more than 35% of CPP's total customer base — who are behind on their bills (as of 11/9) could now be disconnected, assuming they haven't signed up for payment plans or applied for aid to help on their delinquent accounts. 

But the aid is woefully insufficient: $2 million in CARES Act funding is available for Cuyahoga County residents and will be disbursed through CHN Housing Partners. An additional $6.8 million is available from the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland, an organization providing emergency pandemic relief for those who have fallen behind.

According to data released by the city, though, the 90,000 Cleveland Water customers owe an average of $481. For the CPP customers, the amount in arrears is $281. All told, that would require more than $50 million to clear the debts just for water and electric bills, and just to prevent disconnections today. Those debts will obviously reemerge next month and balloon once again as residents continue to suffer without work or recurring Federal aid. These debts also don't include the unpaid utility bills of customers who get power from private providers like FirstEnergy. It should go without saying that a huge percentage of these residents are also likely behind on their rent, mortgage payments, and all other financial obligations .

People are suffering. And Frank Jackson, who pronounces annually that the city should be judged by how it treats the "least of us," is making matters far worse for precisely those he says are most important to him and his legacy. 

Moreover, the available utility aid is means-tested. The purpose is that it should go only to customers who have been hardest hit. In truth, it will go only to customers who apply for help immediately. Applicants must submit to invasive personal and financial questioning when they call for emergency relief — convenient data-mining, by the way, for local philanthropy organizations that increasingly fetishize tech solutions — to determine if they are poor enough and can demonstrate that they've been affected by Covid-19. They must apply before Dec. 31, but the limited supply of relief funding will surely run out long before then. Cuyahoga County and CPP have been careful to stress that these funds are available only on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Tens of thousands of suffering residents will ask for aid and be denied. Tens of thousands, for any number of reasons, won't even apply. 

As Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown wrote Monday, calling for a national moratorium on utility shutoffs:  "It’s unconscionable to turn off anyone’s water and power during this pandemic, let alone tens of thousands of Clevelanders who are struggling to stay afloat."

Not to mention, as the year's worst weather begins to descend in a sustained way. Frank Jackson recognized the inhumanity of this policy at the outset. Back in March, not only did he institute the moratorium, he restored power and water service for those who had been delinquent previously. Why on earth, after months and months of devastation, would he assume that these thousands of customers will now be incentivized by the threat of punishment? Is the Civil Emergency over? Are the pandemic and its vast economic ripple effects safely in the rearview?  Quite the opposite! Ohio is now at its worst case and hospitalization levels since the pandemic began and Gov. Mike DeWine has begged people to stay indoors to prevent the virus' further calamitous spread, (a fate Ohio isn't poised to avoid after a weekend of holiday travel and reckless cavorting.)

Many of the city's poorest residents simply do not have incomes at this point. If they're still working, in jobs that have been deemed essential but still pay monstrously low wages, they're doing so while putting their lives and the lives of their families at risk and while being forced to make debilitating decisions every month about which debts to pay down, which essentials to prioritize. Food? Transportation? Clothes? Heat? If they're not working, who's to say if they've successfully navigated the state's heinous unemployment system? Who's to say they were eligible for unemployment in the first place?

Jackson has said that he understands the plight of these poor folks, and that's why payment plans are available. But for many zero- or close-to-zero-income Clevelanders, a payment plan is just another bill to fall behind on. Another hole to dig out of. And as December unleashes a week of gnarly weather, presaging a season of wind and cold, that hole will be full of snow.

Subjecting suffering Clevelanders to homes without water, light and heat in these conditions — concurrent with a statewide advisory to stay home as much as possible — could very well mean sentencing them to death. 

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