Post-pandemic: Portlanders owe city $28 million for unpaid water, sewage

Portlanders owe more than $28 million to the city for unpaid water, sewer and stormwater bills, according to the city’s water bureau.
Published: Feb. 28, 2023 at 6:58 AM PST
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PORTLAND, Ore. (KPTV) - Portlanders owe more than $28 million to the city for unpaid water, sewer and stormwater bills, according to the city’s water bureau.

The massive debt comes out of the pandemic, where, for more than two years, a city moratorium suspended water shutoffs, collections and fees related to unpaid bills.

During that time, customer debt to the bureau more than doubled, according to a Portland Water Bureau spokeswoman. In March of 2020, Portlanders owed the bureau slightly more than $13 million.

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Spokeswoman Jaymee Cuti told FOX 12 that the bureau is pursuing about $23 million of the $28 million owed, because the city doesn’t attempt to collect past-due bills under $115.

In halting water shutoffs, city leaders sought to protect vital services for people who may have lost their jobs in the pandemic and were unable to make their payments, as well for hygienic reasons – with handwashing imperative in the fight to spread COVID-19.

With the pandemic now winding down, the grace period is over.

In September, the water bureau, which also collects sewer and stormwater bills on behalf of the city’s Environmental Services Bureau, resumed the routine water shutoffs for customers who didn’t pay their bills or make arrangements to pay them off.

In Portland, water usage accounts for about a third of a customer’s quarterly bill, while sewer and stormwater charges are the remainder.

In August 2021, the city resumed sending closed, past-due accounts to collection agencies to recoup owed payments. The city does not send active accounts to collections, said Cuti, in an email.

“Twenty-three million dollars – that’s significant,” said Quisha Light, the Portland Water Bureau’s Customer Service Director, in a recent interview with FOX 12.

“We’re not going to play that down at all,” Light added. “Prior to the pandemic, we were able to basically collect most of what was necessary for the cost of the service that we provide, and post-pandemic, we are not able to.”

From September to January, bureau workers turned off water to nearly 2,500 customers, averaging about 144 shutoffs per week. The bureau said it doesn’t determine whether those accounts represent vacant properties or occupied homes, so it’s unclear how many people were impacted. Another nearly 2,100 accounts were also restored of water in that same period, according to Cuti.

In total, some 15,500 customers in Portland are behind on their water and sewer bills, with only about 4,200 of them on payment plans.

Since the shutoffs resumed, local nonprofits have noticed increasing calls for help to pay water and sewer bills.

Alla Kasimova is the lead energy intake specialist at Our Just Future, an organization that works to stabilize vulnerable people in Portland and Multnomah County with housing, utility bills and employment.

“I have never in my life seen such large balances that people owe for their water and sewer,” Kasimova said, adding that it’s not unusual for her to speak with people who owe $2,000 to $6,000 or even more.

Kasimova said the nonprofit averages 60 calls a week from those seeking help with water and sewer bills.

Typically, said Kasimova, people will prioritize paying rent or mortgages just to keep the roof overhead, and go without electricity or water for periods, if they can’t afford it.

“It’s sad to see something like this; how people suffer,” Kasimova said. “Some of them are already disconnected, some of them have been without water for a week or two weeks and they didn’t know that we actually have funding that can help pay their bill.”

FOX 12 attempted to interview people with water and sewer debt, or living in homes without water, for this report, but ultimately the people we reached declined to share their stories.

As the bureau’s Customer Service Director, Light said she can relate to those struggling to pay their bills.

“As somebody who watched their parents struggle to pay bills like this, day in and day out – who lived without water – I know it’s rough for them,” Light said.

Light said the bureau only shuts water off as a last resort, after many attempts to reach customers.

“What we’re finding is that we’re just not getting a lot of people to call us, and that’s where disconnects – that really small group of customers in disconnects – sometimes that’s the only way we get them to finally call us,” Light said.

“I’m begging people to contact us,” Light added. “We are working with customers. We want to figure it out.”

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Currently, about 7,700 customers have qualified for reduced rates for water, sewer and stormwater services, according to the bureau. Those families and individuals pay either 50% or 30% of standard rates.

Light said the bureau is also scrutinizing those assistance programs to determine if any changes or new structure could help even more people pay their bills and get out of debt.

Funding is challenging, said Light, noting that society has long prioritized helping the poorest with heating and electric bills, but not necessarily funneling public dollars toward programs for water and sewer assistance.

A new bill in the Oregon Legislature – House Bill 3125 – could change that.

“The state is understanding there is a need,” Light said. “That water utilities are trying to balance customer needs, infrastructure needs and there aren’t enough dollars out there.”

When it comes to past-due bills, two big questions remain: If the millions in over-due bills aren’t paid, what does that mean for the city? And could it lead to more expensive water for everyone?

“We have to cover our costs,” Light said. “And we can’t do that because some are not paying; that means we raise rates for everyone.”

Still, the bureau stressed to FOX 12 that current rate increase proposals are unrelated to customers’ unpaid bills.

Rather, a 9%, water-only, rate hike proposal would cover bureau expenses for state and federal regulatory upgrade projects and inflation-related costs for employee compensation, among other costs, according to Cudi.

Cudi said that will amount to roughly $4.64 per month increase for a typical water-user and does not include the costs of sewer and stormwater.

However, future rate increases could be linked to customer debt, said the bureau.

FOX 12 reached out to Commissioner Mingus Mapps’ office for this story. Mapps is the commissioner in charge of the Portland Water Bureau, in addition to the Environmental Services Bureau and Bureau of Transportation.

Mapps sent the following statement:

“We understand that Portlanders are experiencing an affordability crisis and that recovery from the pandemic is different for every household.

We all need to invest in our water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure. All of our rates pay for safe drinking water today and infrastructure to serve the next generation of Portlanders.

The Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services have been pursing federal, state and local solutions to assist Portlanders who are behind on their bills. We encourage everyone who is behind to contact Customer Service and learn about your options because we don’t want anyone to have to choose between keeping utilities on and putting food on their table.”

If you are struggling to pay your water, sewer and stormwater bills there are options for assistance for qualified customers.

You can learn about resources offered by the Water Bureau here:

Our Just Future is a nonprofit that helps with water bills. Visit:

You might be able to get assistance from various nonprofits associated with IRCO, as well.

The Portland Water Bureau also provided the following information about financial assistance:

Financial Assistance

We work with customers on a case-by-case basis to connect them with a suite of financial assistance tools, flexible payment arrangements and more. The Portland City Council has expanded eligibility requirements and increased discounts available and the amount of crisis vouchers, and we’ve recently expanded the team working with customers to find the best financial assistance solution for their individual situation. On a case-by-case basis, the bureau has also revised collections processes, stopped legal action, waived a significant portion of bills, and offered flexible payment plans as options for customers.

We offer:

Financial Assistance support for residential customers: Water and Environmental Services offer financial assistance programs that serve thousands of income-qualified Portlanders and a menu of options for reducing portions of utility bills.

Bill discounts and crisis assistance are available for income-qualified customers. More than 7,683 Portlanders receive financial support from the City

Assistance for renters in multi-family properties in the amount of up to $500 is available through a partnership with Home Forward for renters at risk of eviction. Contact 211 for assistance.

Water leak repair assistance funds repairs of water leaks for income-qualified homeowners. Leaks can become costly quickly. By offering free repair and replacement of inefficient fixtures, customers are better able to manage their sewer/stormwater/water bill, and potentially avoid home displacement. The Portland Water Bureau works with three community partners who coordinate repairs: African American Alliance for Homeownership, Community Energy Project, and Multnomah County.

WaterSmart Home Water Reports provide customers enrolled in the financial assistance program with a detailed Home Water use report each quarter. The reports help alert customers when water use is higher than average and provides resources for managing costs and using water use efficiently.

Flexible, customer-oriented services for all customers: Most Portlanders receive quarterly bills that combine costs for sewer, stormwater, and water fees. Below are some options for all customers who want to manage their costs.

Payment arrangements provide additional time for paying past due charges without incurring new fees on the past due balance.

Monthly statements offer the option of paying each month to avoid a quarterly bill that includes three months of sewer/stormwater/water charges.

Clean River Rewards provide savings for those who manage stormwater on their property.

Water Efficiency offers free water-saving devices and rebates for toilet and irrigation upgrades.

Utility Safety Net Program provides flexible, long-term interest-free payment arrangements for those with medical, or other personal emergencies

Language support services are available to all customers. We have on-call interpreters and translators available in more than 240 languages. We are also increasing our efforts to recruit and hire multilingual employees that can communicate with customers in their native language. The City’s pay differential for multilingual employees is aiding our recruitment efforts.

Beyond financial assistance:

ARPA - The Water Bureau allocated $2.6 million of federal American Recovery Plan Act funds to Portland households at risk for water shut-offs.


LIHWA – The Low Income Housing Water Assistance (LIHWA) program is a federally funded utility assistance programs for low-income Oregonians funded by federal resources through the State. Eligible customers can receive payments that often resolve their entire account balance. LIHWA pledges are awarded on a first come first served basis, with program expiration in September 2023. As of Dec. 31, 2022, our customers had received $648,143 in LIHWA funds. We are also coordaining with Multnomah County, which is managing Emergency Rental Assistance Programs, and allows for utility costs to be paid through those programs.