BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Buffalo residents who are financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic are allowed to negotiate their Buffalo Water bill until June 30th, the Buffalo Water Board Chairman Oluwole McFoy tells 7 Eyewitness News.
But that customer right is not explicitly written anywhere on the Buffalo Water Board's mailers or website, so in order to negotiate, you have to know your rights, and then ask for the negotiation.
That's why the Western New York Law Center says the Buffalo Water Board is violating New York State Law.
Since last July, the Water Board's payment relief plan, called the Water Amnesty Program, explicitly says customers who are in arrears must pay their water debt within a 12-month payment plan. The Amnesty Program, which waives customers' interest and penalties, was designed to be an answer to the state law that placed a moratorium on water shutoffs and forced utilities and municipalities to offer customers interest-free deferred payment programs.
"We are really focusing in on making sure we can get help out to the folks who need it most in our community,” said McFoy.
But according to Steve Halpern, an attorney for the Western New York Law Center, the Amnesty Program is not complying with the specific language of state laws. For example, Halpern points to a provision that the payment agreement must allow for installments as low as $10 per month.
"That law gave people the right to negotiate these payments based on what they can afford and those agreements could be as low as $10 a month," said Halpern.
Halpern is frustrated that there is no language in the Amnesty Program to reflect this ability for people to enter into these negotiations.
“You can’t exercise a right if you’re unaware that it exists. That’s the issue here," said Halpern.
But McFoy defends his Water Amnesty Program by saying it goes above and beyond what New York State has mandated in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
"We definitely believe that by removing the penalties and interest reduces the fees significantly," said McFoy. “There are people who are in some real financial distress and we want to make sure we have them covered.”
So far, about 850 Buffalo Water customers have signed up for the Amnesty Program. Both McFoy and Halpern hope to see that number increase significantly before the program expires on June 30th.
They both are acutely aware of how many people struggle to pay their water bills in the city of Buffalo.
According to the Partnership for the Public Good, there were 2,518 instances of water shutoffs in 2019.
Halpern hopes that when people call to sign up for the Amnesty Program, they will be aware of their rights and negotiate their water bill to whatever price they can afford, for as long as it takes to pay off their debt.