Utility companies in Ohio are either regulated or unregulated. Regulated utilities (e.g. most electric, gas, phone companies) must follow rules created by the Public Utility Commission of Ohio (PUCO). Unregulated utilities must follow the rules created in the local jurisdiction. For example, Cleveland Public Power is governed by ordinances passed by the City of Cleveland. Utility customers have a right to notice and a hearing before any utility is shut off (except in an emergency). Several programs offer financial assistance to help customers pay for utilities.
Did You Know Unpaid Water Bills May Increase Property Tax Bills?
Water and sewer bills have doubled in the last 10 years and will continue to increase. These increased costs make paying the bills hard for families with low and fixed incomes. When a water bill is not paid for several months, the amount owed may show up on a homeowner’s property tax bill. As a result, the property tax bill is much higher than expected.
How can that happen? Ohio law allows a city water department, like the Cleveland Water Department, to send the overdue amount on a water account to the county treasurer’s office. The treasurer then adds an “assessment” (charge) on the tax bill for the property. This process is sometimes called “liening” the water account or placing a water lien on the property. When the homeowner next pays their property tax bill, some of that money will be sent to the water department to pay off the amount owed and clear the lien from the property.
The “water lien” process is typically a last resort after the water department has tried all other ways to collect the amount owed, including stopping the water service. Before the water department can place a lien on a property, it must give notice to the account holder. The Cleveland Water Department sends two (2) letters to the homeowner to let them know of their plan to add the water charges onto the property tax bill. The first notice is sent to the homeowner four (4) months before the charge is applied to the property tax bill and a final notice is sent one (1) month before the charge is applied.
If a homeowner gets a notice from the water department about the plan to assess the unpaid water charges onto the property tax bill, the homeowner should take action! To avoid the assessment, homeowners will typically need to make a lump sum payment of 25% of the amount owed and then enter into a payment plan with the water department for the rest of the amount owed on the account. Once the homeowner is on a payment plan, the water department will reconnect the water service and will not place a lien on the property as long as the homeowner continues to make payments.
More information about water bills can be found at https://lasclev.org/delinquent-cleveland-water-department-bills-and-property-taxes/.
This article was written by Katherine Hollingsworth and appeared in The Alert: Volume 35, Issue 1.
Cleveland Water Department Shut-Offs and Water Review Board Hearings
Q: What is Cleveland Water required to do in order to let customers know that they are at risk of shut-off (service disconnection) because of a delinquent account?
A: Cleveland Water must notify all account holders at imminent risk of service shut-off for non-payment. Cleveland Water is required by city ordinance to send one letter at least 15 days before shutting-off water service. Cleveland Water also places a door hanger on the front door of the property at least 3 days before shut-off. A tenant who has a Tenant Deposit Agreement with the Water Department would get this notice directly, but otherwise the letter would be mailed to the property owner as the account holder, and a tenant would only get notice from the door hanger.
Q: How does Cleveland Water choose which delinquent accounts it will shut-off?
A: Currently, Cleveland Water may disconnect any account with an overdue amount of $300 or more.
Q: Does Cleveland Water have a hearing process to try and prevent service shut-offs?
A: Yes. Cleveland Water has the Water Review Board, which holds hearings for property owners or tenants (with a Tenant Deposit Agreement) who have, or will soon have, their water service shut-off.
Q: Who can have a hearing before the Water Review Board?
A: In order to qualify for a Water Review Board hearing, you have to meet the following eligibility criteria:
- The property must be a residential property and the requestor is the property owner OR a resident with an approved Cleveland Water Tenant Deposit Agreement (see more information about getting a Tenant Deposit Agreement at [insert link]; and
- The customer has received a shut- off/termination notice.
Q: What is a “residential property”?
A: For the Water Review Board, a residential property is a single or multi-family dwelling with four or less units. If you are a renter (tenant) requesting a hearing, you must also provide proof of residency for the disputed period (such as an electric, gas or cable bill) with your written or faxed request.
Q: How does a customer request a Water Review Board hearing?
A: Qualifying customers must submit a written letter or complete and sign a Water Review Board Hearing Request Form, which is available on the Cleveland Water website (http://www.clevelandwater.com/water-review-board) or in person at the Cleveland Water Customer Service Center (1201 Lakeside Ave.). The request must be completed by the person who is financially responsible for the bill and must be sent to Cleveland Water within ten (10) days of receiving the shut-off/termination notice. You will also have to provide proof of residency in the property.
Q: How can customers submit the letter request or completed Water Review Board hearing request form?
A: You may submit the written letter/completed request form and your proof of residency in the following ways:
- By fax at (216) 664-4007
- By mail to Water Review Board, 1201 Lakeside Ave Cleveland, Ohio 44114.
- In person at Cleveland Water main office (1201 Lakeside Ave.) Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Q: How does Cleveland Water tell its customer’s about the Water Review Board?
A: Cleveland Water is required to provide information about the Water Review Board in the shut-off/disconnection notice they send to customers. Cleveland Water customer service representatives do not tell customers about the Water Review Board when they call customer service, but the customer service representatives are supposed to try to resolve customer disputes without the need for the Water Review Board.
Q: Can customers who have not yet received a shut-off/termination letter request a hearing with the Water Review Board?
A: No. Eligibility for the Water Review Board requires that the customer be at risk of immediate service termination. No other disputes are heard by the Water Review Board.
Q: How are disputes over a water bill handled when service has not been shut-off?
A: The only bill-dispute process (where a shut-off has not been scheduled) is to go through Cleveland Water’s customer service process. If a customer is not satisfied with what the customer service representative is telling them, the customer should ask to speak with a supervisor in the customer service department.
Q: How does Cleveland Water respond to requests for hearings?
A: The account of the customer requesting a hearing is reviewed for eligibility. If the customer meets the eligibility requirements, they are contacted and a hearing is scheduled. If they are not eligible, a denial letter is mailed to them.
Q: Does the customer’s water service remain connected while going through the hearing process?
A: Yes. The water service will remain on for customers while they proceed through the Water Review Board process.
Q: Can a customer bring someone to help them at the Water Review Board hearing?
A: Yes, a customer may bring a friend or family member with them to the Water Review Board hearing.
Q: When should a customer contact Legal Aid about a problem with their water bill or service?
A: You should contact Legal Aid for help if you have received a shut-off/termination notice and submitted your written request for a Water Review Board hearing within 10 days of receiving the notice, but Cleveland Water denied your request. In addition, if your water service was shut-off without receiving written notice (both by mail and by a door hanger), you should contact Legal Aid.
For information about delinquent Cleveland Water Department bills and property taxes, click here.
Delinquent Cleveland Water Department Bills and Property Taxes
Q: Why are there Cleveland Water Department charges (water assessments) on my property tax bill?
A: In Ohio there is a law that allows a municipal water department, like Cleveland Water, to asses delinquent water bills as a property tax lien, which will appear on a homeowner’s property tax bill.
Q: What does it mean that Cleveland Water can place a lien on my property tax?
A: Cleveland Water can take the total amount due on the unpaid water account and send that amount to the Cuyahoga County Treasurer to place as an assessment on the property tax bill, which will cause your property tax bill to increase. When you pay your property tax bill, some of that money will be sent to Cleveland Water to pay off your unpaid account.
Q: How does Cleveland Water choose which delinquent accounts get assessed as a property tax lien?
A: Cleveland Water’s policy is that customers who have had their water service disconnected and have an outstanding balance of at least $300 for longer than 180 days are eligible to have those outstanding balances placed as a lien on their county property taxes.
Q: Do all eligible accounts automatically have their balances placed as property tax liens?
A: No, there are typically thousands of accounts that are eligible to be assessed on property taxes, but have not been sent to the Treasurer. However, Cleveland Water has more regularly been assessing delinquent accounts as property tax liens since 2016.
Q: Does Cleveland Water only place delinquent accounts as property tax liens when the water service has been shut off? Or will Cleveland Water assess tax liens for accounts that also remain in active service?
A: Cleveland Water’s practice is to only assess liens for accounts after all other collection options (including disconnection) have been exhausted. One exception to that policy is when a renter (a tenant) has signed a Tenant Deposit Agreement with Cleveland Water, which requires the renter to take responsibility for paying their own water bill going forward, but will not make the renter responsible for the past due water bill owed by the homeowner. In that case, Cleveland Water may place the lien on the homeowner’s (landlord’s) property taxes and keep service continued, so that the tenant can continue to have water.
Q: If I am a renter who wants to pay my own water bill, how do I go about getting a Tenant Deposit Agreement in place?
A: Go to Cleveland Water’s Customer Service Center (1201 Lakeside Ave.) and bring a copy of your lease agreement and photo identification. You will be asked to pay a deposit when you sign the agreement.
Q: Do property owners receive notice that their delinquent water bill will be assessed as a property tax lien? If so, when does the notice get delivered?
A: Cleveland Water’s policy is to notify property owners in writing prior to assessing the lien. The notice is sent by U.S. Post Office First Class Mail at least 120 days before the lien is assessed. In addition, Cleveland Water sends a final notice 30 days before the lien is assessed.
Q: Other than paying the entire balance due, is there any other way a property owner can get the service reconnected and avoid a tax lien after receiving a notice that Cleveland Water plans to place the lien?
A: The County Treasurer only permits Cleveland Water to place liens twice a year- September and March. To avoid the lien, customers must make an initial lump sum payment (typically about 25% of the amount owed) and enter into a payment plan for the remaining balance. Once the customer is on a payment plan, Cleveland Water will reconnect service, and if a lien has been placed, it will be withdrawn.
For information about Cleveland Water Department shut-offs and Water Review Board hearings, Click here.
What consumer protections are there for PUCO regulated utilities?
The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) oversees companies and makes sure Ohioans have access to safe and reliable utilities. Common utility services include electric, natural gas, telephone, water and waste. As a utility user, you have certain rights and protections against having your service shut-off by utility providers that are regulated by PUCO.
However, not all utility companies are regulated by PUCO. For example, some municipal utility providers like Cleveland Public Power and Cleveland Water Department are not PUCO regulated utilities. To find a list of companies that are regulated by PUCO go to www.puco.ohio.gov.
If you are unable to pay your utility bill, PUCO regulated companies must send you a shut-off notice at least 14 days before the disconnection. Utility companies are allowed to shut off services year-round. However, if an electric or natural gas utility company plans to shut off service during the winter months, between November 1 and April 15, the company must give you an extra 10 day shut-off notice in addition to the 14-day notice. Utility companies must also offer you a payment plan option to help you keep your services connected.
If a member of your household has a medical condition where shutting off the utility service would be dangerous to their health, you may qualify for a medical certification. The medical certification will delay a shut-off (or in some cases allow you to get your service turned back on) for an additional 30 days. For more information on medical certifications, you can call your utility company or visit the Office of the Ohio Consumer’s Counsel website, at www.occ.ohio.gov (search “medical certification”).
There are also programs like the Winter Reconnect Order, the Summer Program, and the Home Energy Assistance Program, which help people who are having trouble paying their utility bills and may be at risk of utility shut-off. To find out more about these programs, call (800) 282-0880 or see the Legal Aid Brochure: “Utility Problems?” at https://lasclev.org/utility-problems/.
If you are having problems with a utility provider, you may submit an informal complaint to PUCO. There are four ways to contact PUCO with a complaint:
- Fill out the online complaint form located at www.puco.ohio.gov (under the “Contact Us” tab).
- Call the PUCO Call Center at (800) 686-7826.
- Fax your complaint to (614) 752-8351.
- Mail your complaint to:
Public Utilities Commission of Ohio
180 Broad Street
Columbus, Ohio 43215-3793
If PUCO determines that they are not able to solve your problem or you are unhappy with the outcome, you may file a formal complaint with PUCO by calling (800) 686-7826. If you decide to file a formal complaint, PUCO will open an administrative law case, which will be similar to a court case.
Legal Aid assists consumers in some utility cases. To apply for help from Legal Aid with a utility related problem, call (888)-817-3777, or visit a neighborhood Brief Advice Clinic (see the schedule at www.lasclev.org).
This article was written by Erin Przybylinski and appeared in The Alert: Volume 33, Issue 3. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!
How do I apply for Lifeline Telephone Assistance?
Stay Connected with Lifeline – Telephone Discount Program!
The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) urges qualifying low-income residents to apply for Lifeline Telephone Assistance. Lifeline Assistance makes basic local telephone service more affordable for income-eligible families across Ohio. Those who qualify could receive discounts for monthly telephone bills and/or installation costs of telephone service. And now, some wireless companies offer Lifeline discounts.
Am I eligible?
You may qualify for Lifeline if your household income is at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines or if you participate in one of the following programs:
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)/ Food Stamps
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Federal Public Housing Assistance/Section 8
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) /Ohio Works First
- National School Free Lunch Program
- Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
A Lifeline eligibility pre-screening tool is available at www.lifelinesupport.org.
Are there any restrictions?
Lifeline benefits may be applied to only one type of service – landline or wireless – and are limited to one line per household. Customers receiving lifeline benefits must also re-verify their eligibility annually. Other restrictions may apply.
What are the benefits? How do I apply?
Eligible low-income customers receive a monthly discount of $9.25 on basic local landline telephone service, waiver of installation charges, waiver of deposit fees, optional toll blocking at no charge and optional 900/976 blocking at no charge. Wireless carrier plans also include a $9.25 monthly discount for qualified customers. Contact your local landline or wireless phone company at the numbers listed on this info sheet (click here) and ask to apply for Lifeline.
If you have any questions or have a complaint about Lifeline, please contact the PUCO at (800) 686-7826.
How can I get assistance with my gas, electric, water, or telephone service?
Numerous programs help make utilities such as electricity, gas, water and telephone more affordable for consumers. Listed below are several such programs along with information about who is eligible and how to apply.
Gas and Electric Service
In the summer, if you are 60 or more years old, you may qualify to receive $250 for an air conditioner and/ or utility assistance. Adults under 60 may qualify if you received a disconnection notice and you have a documented medical condition.
In the winter, emergency assistance is also available when households are threatened with disconnection or have less than a 10-day supply of bulk fuel in their tank.
The regular Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) for low-income consumers and the Percent of Income Payment Plan Plus provide year-round financial assistance to qualifying consumers. You may qualify for a one-time payment toward your gas bill and a payment plan based on your income on both your gas and electric bills. If you are already enrolled in PIPP and HEAP, you must continue to make monthly payments in order to remain eligible again next year.
For more information or to apply, contact the agency in the county where you live:
- Ashtabula County – Ashtabula County Community Action Agency, Inc (440.997.5957), www.accaa.org
- Cuyahoga County – Cleveland Housing Network (216.518.4014, or for seniors over 60 or anyone physically disabled call 216.774.2351 to schedule an in-home appointment), http://www.chnnet. com/electric-gas-bulk-fuel-water-assistance.aspx; Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland (216.696.9077), www.ceogc.org.
- Geauga County – Geauga Community Action, Inc. (440.285.9141)
- Lake County – Lifeline For Empowerment and Development of Consumers (440.354.2148), www.lclifeline.org
- Lorain County – Lorain County Community Action Agency, Inc. (440.245.2009)
Customers of the Cleveland Water Department may be eligible for the Water Affordability Program, which provides a 40% discount to qualifying households. You must be the homeowner, live in the home, and meet income guidelines to qualify. You can call Cleveland Housing Network at 216-774-2386 to apply or download an application here.
Water Department customers who are 65 years or older, or who are totally and permanently disabled, may qualify for the Homestead Program. Call the Cleveland Water Department Customer Service Department at 216-664- 3130 to apply or download the application here.
Residents of Ohio who have income at or below 150% of the federal poverty guidelines or who participate in programs such as Medicaid, public housing, HEAP, free school lunch, food stamps, SSI, or Ohio Works First, may qualify for discounted landline and cell phone service.
The Lifeline Ohio program offered to AT&T customers provides eligible customers a $12.50 per month credit on their landline telephone bills, as well as benefits such as free line connection and payment plans on outstanding balances. Call 1-800-335-8721 to sign up (TTY users call 1-800-980-4889). Click here for more information.
SafeLink Wireless provides qualified applicants a free phone and a choice of three monthly minute plans without a contract or bill. Additional minutes can be purchased with a TracFone card. You can apply by calling 1-800-Safelink or online here.
Important Consumer News about Telephone Service
Telephone companies in parts of Ohio are attempting to discontinue landline phone service to customers or require that customers bundle landline service with other services. Senate Bill 271 which passed the Ohio Senate in February 2012 is now being considered by the Ohio House of Representatives. The phone companies say that by eliminating landline service they will have more resources to concentrate on other services customers want. The consequence may be that currently affordable landline service for seniors and low-income customers will not be available as early as 2014.
This FAQ was written by John Kirn, Esq. and Anne Sweeney, Esq. and appeared as a story in Volume 28, Issue 2 of “The Alert” – a newsletter for seniors published by Legal Aid. Click here to read the full issue.