Non-profit that helps Birmingham Water Works customers pay bills out of money for 2022 – AL.com

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This story originally appeared in The Lede. For more or to subscribe, visit www.birminghamlede.com
Almost two decades ago, Birmingham Water Works (BWWB) created a nonprofit to help customers who are struggling with their bills. But this year, while thousands are struggling, the nonprofit ran out of money.
The Help 2 Others foundation (H2O) was established with support from BWWB and the Salvation Army to assist ratepayers who can’t afford their water or Jefferson County sewer bills.
“Residents interested in assistance from H2O may contact the H2O assistance line at 205-244-4390,” said H2O Executive Director Jamekia Bies. “Residents are then scheduled for an appointment to assess eligibility with a designated specialist. These appointments take place at the Salvation Army. Currently, residents must be a Birmingham Water Works customer, have a bill in their name, and meet the eligibility requirements. Eligible residents could receive financial assistance once per year, not to exceed $500. If approved, the H2O Foundation sends the funds directly to the utility provider.”
But that’s not exactly what happened to BWWB customer Dana Prater. She said her experience reaching out to the foundation for funds a couple months ago did not go so smoothly.
Prater said it took a month to connect with an assistance line representative who she described as “rude” and to be scheduled for an appointment to see a specialist.
“After she hung up, I realized she made the date for a Saturday,” said Prater. “I called her back and had to call several times to get someone to answer again. I asked her if they were open on Saturday and she rudely told me they were not, so I asked her why she scheduled my appointment on a Saturday when she knows they are closed. She rescheduled my time but was rude about it. I think she was hoping for me not to catch the mistake.”
Prater said she received a call two weeks after the rescheduling and was informed H2O was out of funds to assist her.
In an interview later, H2O confirmed it was out of funds for 2022.
“Unfortunately, the foundation is out of funds for the year; since the non-profit is donation based, the funds vary annually,” Bies said in a written response. “We are sorry to hear a customer had difficulty getting an appointment and had a negative experience.
“To contact the H2O Foundation, you must call the assistance line at (205) 244-4390, where a dedicated H2O representative will assist you. While the appointments take place at the Salvation Army, the only way to contact H2O is through the assistance line or info@h2obham.org. We try to help residents to the best of our ability; however various factors can affect the amount of aid we are able to distribute, such as limited staff, high-interest demand, fund limits, and eligibility requirements. To view more information about eligibility, residents can visit h2obham.org.”
Bies said that there have been years where the foundation has been able to assist people through the end of the year, but its ability to do so, depends on how much is donated.
She did not respond to requests for the specific amount of this year’s donations versus last year’s. She also would not offer a specific reason for the funding shortfall this year.
“The allocated funds are delivered to customers throughout the year and vary on how many community members request support and the number of customer donations the foundation has received,” Bies said. “So, it really varies annually how much the foundation is able to support community members.”
The foundation’s shortfall of funds comes in a year when thousands of Birmingham Water Works customers have been dealing with persistent billing issues for more than a year. Some have gotten late bills or bills that were estimated incorrectly. In some cases, customers have had to contend with bills for hundreds of dollars, leading to increased scrutiny and criticism of the utility.
In recent days, BWWB has revamped its billing and begun reaching out to affected customers with efforts assist with billing issues.
H2O, an earlier initiative to help struggling customers provides assistance in the form of bill payments or plumbing repairs that help lower someone’s water bill if they have a leak, according to the foundation’s website.
Applicants must be 50 years of age or older, disabled, or have a health condition that would be impacted by the loss of water in their homes to be eligible according to the H2O website.
The majority of their funding comes from grants and donations, including some from BWWB as part of an elective option for ratepayers to donate toward the foundation through their bills.
The foundation works out of the Salvation Army offices and uses their space for meetings and their assistance line.
Aside from the designated specialists from the Salvation Army that work for H2O, the foundation also has a board of directors consisting of the following members according to their site:
· Michael Johnson- BWWB General Manager
· Melvin Staples-Birmingham Water Works Board, Retiree
· Connie Harris- Sheppard, Harris & Associates
· Mike O’Brien- ACIPCO Federal Credit Union
· Jason Eppenger- Citizens Trust Bank
· Brian Ruggs- ARCADIS, U.S., Inc.
· Theo Johnson- Jacobs Engineering
· K. Mark Parnell- Parnell Thompson, LLC- BWWB Attorney
· Karen Wadlington- Associate Board Member – Jefferson County Board of Equalization
To address what Bies called “growing foundational needs,” last year H2O held its first competitive search for an executive director and selected Bies, a former guidance counselor and real estate agent.
“At each level, from the community to the boardroom, she is committed to having a positive impact on the social structure of everything within her reach,” H2O’s website says of Bies.
Although there are several BWWB representatives on their board, H2O and BWWB member George Munchus said that the foundation stands independently from the utility, aside from the ratepayer donations.
This article was updated on Dec. 6 at 4:23 p.m. to reflect that it was Bies answering the questions and not an H2O PR representative.
The headline for this article was edited on Dec. 7 at 11:29 a.m. to change “bill” to “bills”.
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