As the pandemic rages on, the city of Petersburg’s financial health is taking a hit.
With restaurants shuttered or struggling to get by on takeout, meals tax collections the city relies on are down. When it comes to personal property — car tax, water bills — and real estate taxes, “people are not paying these things as quickly as they normally would,” City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides said in an interview.
Virginia is scheduled to move to a third phase of reopening Wednesday that will allow restaurants to operate at full capacity, but challenges will remain, she said.
“Part of it is, people are afraid to spend their money,” Ferrell-Benavides said.
She didn’t provide a total of COVID-19 revenue losses, but city officials have said the $104.3 million operating budget that begins July 1 is down $2.27 million. Other localities likewise have stripped millions from their spending plans: Richmond, $38.5 million; Chesterfield, $52 million; Hanover, $20.8 million.
These cuts mean fewer services for local residents, who also have struggled to pay their bills during the shutdown. The tension between the city’s needs and its peoples’ played out in a bruising debate last month over Petersburg’s water accounts, several of which had been shut down due to nonpayment before the pandemic.
The city has said it couldn’t afford to pay to keep the taps on for people who wouldn’t enter payment plans, and pushed back after state leaders called on the city to turn the water back on (the state health commissioner issuing an order to have the city restore all households’ water until the pandemic is over).
The city’s attorney, Anthony Williams, advised the City Council — most members did not want to keep taps on — on how to sue the state over the order. They so far have not filed legal action, and officials have been reluctant to discuss the fallout.
“The water issue is very complex, it’s more than what meets the eye,” Ferrell-Benavides said.
After voting against turning the faucets back on in early May, the City Council has voted on several other motions regarding the water issue, including to potentially raise the water rate in October; to receive a financial impact report for complying with the state order and to tighten the reins on determining water reconnection. All votes have gone 6-1, with Councilwoman Treska Wilson-Smith voting against her fellow members.
City officials asked by Del. Lashrecse Aird to survey dry taps found 46 homes without service initially. After another audit, the city said only 14 homes were without running water.
Wilson-Smith, the lone voice wanting to turn the water back on from the beginning, said the issue at hand “has turned into a fiasco.”
Attempts to reach Mayor Sam Parham, who previously called the state order “a political ploy,” were unsuccessful.
Vice Mayor John Hart, who said the city must comply with the state, said as certain council members remained focused on the issue, he “hope[s] this becomes an issue we can quickly resolve and move forward.”
After discussing water-related issues in closed session, the City Council on June 16 voted at Councilman Charlie Cuthbert’s motion to direct the city to revert to pre-COVID-19 procedures “with respect to disconnects and reconnects to utility service.”
When reached by phone to explain the motions, Cuthbert said, “I truly can’t remember [the motions].”
Residents will now have to provide proof of residence before having their water service restored, either providing a lease or a piece of mail to verify those in the home are rightfully living there and are not squatters, as an example, according to a city spokeswoman.
As for disconnections, Ferrell-Benavides said the council’s motion means that if residents want to disconnect their water, they have to submit an application of approval to do so.
Aird, whose 63rd District includes Petersburg, has kept abreast of the issue, securing $90,000 in grants from the Dominion Charitable Foundation, to help residents pay off their past-due water bills.
Pathways-VA Inc. is working with households on a case-by-case basis. To determine a household’s grant eligibility, the nonprofit has requested the following information from the city: copies of delinquent account balances, payment arrangements that listed delinquent residents have made and any verification of payments made.
At least 10 households have reached out to Pathways, according to Juanita Epps, director of the nonprofit. The city has agreed to provide the information, Epps added.
Ferrell-Benavides, who did not comment directly on Pathways involvement, said “we’ve made some headway in people paying, but as people are paying others aren’t … it’s staying stagnant.”
Ferrell-Benavides previously said the city is owed $3.9 million in past-due water bills.
Earlier this month, the city’s lawyer presented the council with the option to sue the state in response to State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver’s order. While the City Council did not take any action on the potential lawsuit on June 2, Williams said this week the option “certainly can still be explored.”
“I do believe that the city of Petersburg has been treated unfairly in this matter and may have a case,” Williams wrote in an email.
Williams said “it is inconceivable” that a city whose COVID-19 cases and deaths do not come close to the statewide average, “would be singled out and forced to essentially give away property purchased with public funds to persons who may have had their water disconnected literally for years and a history of nonpayment, with no regard for outstanding funds owed.”
Petersburg has 219 COVID-19 cases, 42 hospitalizations and three deaths as of Friday, according to the state health department. Virginia reported 60,570 cases, with 57,977 confirmed and 2,593 deemed probable on Friday. There are 1,700 COVID-19 deaths, with 1,596 confirmed and 104 probable in the state.
Wilson-Smith said the option to sue the state was the “worst advice” Williams could have provided.
“It’s disgusting we would even discuss suing the state because the state didn’t get involved until our council voted to not turn the water back on,” Wilson-Smith said.
Florence Farley, who in 1984 became the first female mayor of Petersburg and the first Black woman to be mayor of a Virginia city, called the city’s response to the state “pathetic.”
“If you make a mistake and somebody helps you to correct it and you’re still going to talk about what they did was wrong [sending the order], that is pathetic,” Farley said in an interview, adding that if she were still mayor, she never would have disconnected the water.
In an emailed statement, the state health department said “VDH understands that the city of Petersburg is complying with the Commissioner’s certification and expects that effort to continue.”
City officials have said multiple times they feel the state is singling them out as the locality to be required to restore water.
“To be the only locality … to have had such a mandate imposed smacks of impropriety discriminatory intent and/or disparate impact,” Williams said.
In nearby areas, residents have not been without water during the pandemic.
In Colonial Heights, 116 accounts were suspended as of March 11, however within a 48-hour period 110 accounts were paid, restoring water. The city restored water for the remaining six homes free of charge. In April, the City Council voted that when a local emergency occurs the city will waive any fees and payments for any nonpayment of service that impacts a resident’s well-being.
While some home water accounts in Chesterfield County were disconnected for nonpayment, all accounts were restored during the pandemic. In Hopewell, any billing-related service interruptions were suspended as of March 13.