‘It’s time for them to pay up’: Petersburg mayor gets tough after discovering water service thefts

Published: May. 5, 2020 at 11:10 PM EDT
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PETERSBURG, Va. (WWBT) - There is a firm message coming from Petersburg’s mayor who is dealing with a complicated issue when it comes to the ongoing saga over water bills.

"People have been helping their selves but it’s time for them to pay up and we will be prosecuting to the full extent of the law,” Mayor Sam Parham said.

The mayor claims 138 customers somehow have water after the city disconnected service due to non-payment. That’s not the only concern. Some people are even living in homes where there’s no water during the coronavirus pandemic.

Right now, Petersburg is losing $3.2 million from people who are past due on their water bills. Last year, leaders started cutting off service due to non-payment. NBC12 found out more than 700 customers saw their service disconnected between July of 2019 and January of 2020. Some 300 customers got their water back by paying what they owed. Right now, 46 households are without water during this health pandemic. That has one council member livid.

“We’re telling everyone to wash their hands. With what, if they have no running water?” Treska Wilson-Smith asked.

Tuesday she voted on a proposal to immediately restore all disconnections and/or implement payment plans. She was outnumbered.

"Council didn’t have that sense of urgency in restoring water because they were already taking water here in the city of Petersburg,” Mayor Sam Parham said.

He believes there’s a larger problem - customers stealing water.

"They have actually rigged up their water lines in some cases in which to bypass the meter so the city cannot pick up on the fact that there’s someone in the house using water,” he said.

City officials say officers went door-to-door last weekend checking to see who has water service. They found 138 properties where water had been turned off, somehow still had it.

"We’re turning this over to the Commonwealth’s Attorney and she’s going to be pursuing charges against these accounts,” Parham said.

"In some cases, these are individuals who are gainfully employed but because they realized there were no consequences because we are so behind on disconnects, they just stopped paying,” City Manager Aretha Ferell-Benavides added.

As that process moves forward, what about the households who haven’t rigged the system?

"We are receiving payments every day of individuals who are coming to cut their water on. There are organizations who are willing to help them but we won’t know unless they come down and contact the Office of Billing and Collection,” Ferell-Benavides said.

"Sad. I think it’s very sad that there are 46 households in the city of Petersburg which we represent and we know they have no running water and we’re alright with that. I think that’s a sad state,” Wilson-Smith countered.

Petersburg will now perform quarterly audits to make sure those water accounts are being maintained properly. The city has not disconnected any service during the pandemic.

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