Restore Water to Combat COVID-19 in Buffalo

Byron Brown, Mayor of Buffalo & Oluwole “OJ” McFoy, Chairman of the Buffalo Water Board

Help us call on the City of Buffalo and Buffalo Water to restore services to households without water.

For almost two weeks, community and legal services organizations have pressed the City to do two things: communicate more widely and effectively about how people can get their water restored, and take proactive steps to restore water. In this state of emergency, the time for delay is over.

We commend the City for suspending water shut-offs on March 17, but the emergency policy on restoring water to those previously shut off is inadequate. On March 26, the Buffalo News Editorial Board joined our call for the City to “aggressively restore water service where it was cut off.” A March 28 story in the Washington Post, “When corona virus hits, but the water is shut off,” highlighted challenges to restoring water in Buffalo – demonstrating the growing national attention on this issue.

Those now living without water are the most vulnerable people in our community. City officials must act to help them, and we ask that you urge them to pursue the following actions to reach people and restore their water:

1.     Send letters via first class mail to all Buffalo Water customers shut off in the last year, announcing that water can be turned on at no cost by calling Buffalo Water Customer Service at 716-847-1065. To distinguish that letter from a bill, the outside of the envelope could read: “ This is not a bill. To have your water turned on at no cost, open this letter.”

2.     Run repeated public service announcements on radio and television, with the Buffalo Water Customer Service phone number read or displayed repeatedly and slowly.

3.     Update the websites of the City and Buffalo Water to announce that water service can be restored at no cost with the number to call. Currently, there is no information on either website on how to get water restored.

4.     The Water Board should create a database of all residences where it turned off water and the residence was occupied at such time. When they turn water off, City workers record whether the home is occupied. The City can now use this crucial information as a starting list to confirm where residents are still living without water.

5.     The Water Board has phone numbers for account holders who have phones. Using this internal data, the City should call residents to initiate water restoration and proactively confirm that a resident is living at the address.

6.     The City should report on the number of residents with water service restored since March 17, 2020 and report daily on how many more homes have water turned on.


Petition by

To: Byron Brown, Mayor of Buffalo & Oluwole “OJ” McFoy, Chairman of the Buffalo Water Board
From: [Your Name]

Dear Mayor Brown and Chairman McFoy:

We urge you to protect Buffalo residents from the COVID-19 health crisis by proactively restoring service to households without water.

As of March 31, 2020, the virus has claimed eight lives in Erie County and 499 people have tested positive. Medical and scientific authorities are unanimous that the number of people infected with the virus has not peaked, and that the single most effective way to ward it off, along with physical isolation, is simply washing one’s hands. Yet residents without water cannot perform this simple task and, as a result, are put directly in harm’s way. Further, it is impossible to “stay at home” without water, and these residents continue to visit store after store in search of bottled water for drinking and washing at home. It is not an exaggeration to say that the absence of water could create a life and death situation in these households.

The City’s existing policy requires that people call the Buffalo Water Board to request service restoration. This approach presumes that 1) people living without water have heard about a phone number to call to restore water; 2) people living without water—who didn’t have the resources for minimum payments to restore their water before the crisis—have access to phones during a “stay at home” advisory; and 3) the City’s very limited announcements that water can be turned on at no cost have reached the many people still without water.

Those now living without water are the most vulnerable people in our community. City officials must act to help them, and we ask that you pursue the following actions to reach people and restore their water:

Effective Communications and Outreach

1. Send letters via first class mail to all Buffalo Water customers shut off in the last year, announcing that water can be turned on at no cost by calling Buffalo Water Customer Service at 716-847-1065. To distinguish that letter from a bill, the outside of the envelope could read: “This is not a bill. To have your water turned on at no cost, open this letter.”

2. Run repeated public service announcements on radio and television, with the Buffalo Water Customer Service phone number read or displayed repeatedly and slowly. The City could also use social media to get the word out. To date, among COVID-19 updates, the Mayor’s Facebook page has only once shared that “Buffalo Water will restore service to those who had it turned off for nonpayment,” with no instructions or phone number to call.

3. Update the websites of the City and Buffalo Water to announce that water service can be restored at no cost with the number to call. Currently, there is no information on either website on how to get water restored.

Proactive Service Restoration

1. The Water Board should create a database of all residences where it turned off water and the residence was occupied at such time. When they turn water off, City workers record whether the home is occupied. The City can now use this crucial information as a starting list to confirm where residents are still living without water.

2. The Water Board has phone numbers for account holders who have phones. Using this internal data, the City should call residents to initiate water restoration and proactively confirm that a resident is living at the address. City staff now working from home could be asked to make these calls. Community groups have been helping to disseminate information and contact individual residents, but as a public entity with responsibilities to residents, the Buffalo Water Board has an obligation to initiate that contact.

3. The City should report on the number of residents with water service restored since March 17, 2020 and report daily on how many more homes have water turned on.

The number of people who need to be reached is great. According to data reported by Veolia, the private company that manages billing for Buffalo Water, from 2015 through March 2019, the City terminated water in over 17,000 instances. Throughout the year, City workers shut off water each week to about 80 households. During an unprecedented public health crisis that endangers the lives of residents, the same staff can be dispatched to restore water to occupied homes. What could be a more essential service than providing access to water during this crisis?

As the practical steps above demonstrate, the City of Buffalo can take quick action to reach people and restore their water. In taking these steps, the City can demonstrate that providing access to water for ALL of its residents is a top priority.

Signed,

1. Western New York Law Center
2. PUSH Buffalo
3. Partnership for the Public Good
4. Buffalo Urban League
5. Center for Elder Law and Justice
6. Neighborhood Legal Services
7. Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo
8. Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME)
9. Belmont Housing Resources for WNY
10. Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project
11. Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) WNY
12. Buffalo Prenatal Perinatal Network
13. NeighborWorks Community Partners Buffalo
14. University District Community Development Association
15. Greater East Side Fields of Dreams Block Club
16. Seneca Street Community Development Corporation
17. Habitat for Humanity Buffalo
18. WNY Coalition for the Homeless
19. Homeless Alliance of WNY
20. Neighborhood Health Center
21. Puerto Rican Committee for Community Justice
22. Community Network for Engagement, Connection, and Transformation (CoNECT)
23. Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper
24. Western New York Environmental Alliance
25. Clean Air Coalition
26. Alliance for the Great Lakes
27. Massachusetts Avenue Project
28. VOICE Buffalo
29. WNY Council on Occupational Safety and Health (WNYCOSH)
30. National Center for Law and Economic Justice
31. Matt Lincoln, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church
32. The Coalition of Positively Charged People
33. WNY Peace Center
34. Interfaith Peace Network of WNY
35. Buffalo String Works
36. Justice for Migrant Families WNY
37. Grassroots Gardens
38. Buffalo Niagara Community Reinvestment Coalition
39. The Change Circle
40. Open Buffalo
41. Ujima Company
42. Urban Roots Cooperative Garden Market
43. Fruit Belt Community Land Trust
44. Food and Water Action
45. National Lawyers Guild, Buffalo Chapter
46. The Rowboat Foundation
47. John N. Lipsitz, Esq., on behalf of Lipsitz & Ponterio, LLC.
48. Public Utility Law Project of New York
49. Environmental Advocates of New York
50. Public Accountability Initiative
51. Coalition for Economic Justice
52. Nickel City Housing Cooperative
53. Cooperation Buffalo
54. Buffalo Arts Studio
55. Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center
56. Locust Street Art
57. New York Immigration Coalition
58. Journey’s End Refugee Services
59. Rural Outreach Center
60. The Clinical Legal Education Program at the University at Buffalo
61. Prisoners Are People Too
62. Executive Committee, Network of Religious Communities
63. Colored Girls Bike Too
64. Fair Fines + Fees Coalition
65. El Museo
66. GOBike Buffalo