All Dried Up

Residents may be evicted for failing to pay their water bills

Imagine getting a water bill for $350, $500 or even $800 -- what would you do? Could you afford it? Would you pay?

Water and sewer rates in the small Berks County, Pa. town of Birdsboro jumped 47 percent in the past year and residents aren't paying -- not out of protest, but because they simply can't afford it.

"What do you do?" said Wanda Rittenbaugh who's out of work on disability. Her husband also suffers from pancreatitis, which needs constant medical attention. "Get your husband's medication or pay your water bill or you leave your husband die…which is it?"

Wanda deferred paying the utility for several quarters, racking up a bill of more than $6,000, until finally the water company closed the tap.

Then just days later, the family received notice from the town that their home was being condemned, because there was no running water.

"I don’t know where we're going to turn to next," said Rittenbaugh.

The Rittenbaughs aren't alone. More than a dozen residents are in the same situtation.

Irene Briggs borrowed $3,000 from her son -- a soldier serving in Iraq -- to stay in her home. "We didn’t pay the water bill, because we needed food or the mortgage," Briggs said.

The municipal authority blamed the high increases on an $11 million, state-mandated upgrade to the borough's water treatment plant. The upgrade is ongoing, so the authority raised rates to cover the cost.

The rates will eventually come down, but not for a while. There may be some help on the way though. The town was awarded a $5 million grant to help pay for the project just this week, according to the Reading Eagle.

That money will certainly help bring down rates, but the residents may not see the results for up to a year as the money is being collected from a bond issue.

Until then, homeowners will need to continue finding creative ways to pay the bills or use unique approaches to keep the water flowing in their homes.

Wanda Rittenbaugh's neighbor did just that. He built a rain barrel in his backyard to collect water for use inside his house. Rittenbaugh hasn't gone that far just yet. She and her husband paid $3,000 worth of the bill to get the water turned back on, but unless they pay the rest by Friday, the pipes will be dry once again.

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