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Harford will dip into CARES Act funding to help residents pay water, sewer bills

Harford County is granting up to $1 million of its federal CARES Act funding to help residents pay water and sewer bills through the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, the county announced Thursday.

Residents who have experienced a financial loss because of COVID-19 and are below 80% of the area’s median income, which changes by household size, can be eligible for the program. The money is available on a first-come, first-serve basis and will be administrated by the Harford Community Action Agency — a non-governmental agency that connects county residents facing hardship to resources and assistance.

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Residents who are behind on their water or sewer bills or those who need help paying for November or December’s water and sewer bills can apply until Dec. 4, the county announced. Applications are currently open on HCAA’s website. The funds are limited and can only be applied to water and sewer bills from March 1 to Dec. 30.

“Unemployment and underemployment during COVID-19 have forced some Harford County families to make impossible choices, like deciding to pay for groceries or pay their water bill,” County Executive Barry Glassman said in a written statement. “This program through Harford Community Action Agency will help prevent hunger and homelessness, and connect residents to the support they need to live healthy and stable lives.”

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Executive director of HCAA Pamela Craig said the organization noticed a lack of funding for its water and sewer assistance programs and approached Harford County government to ask for CARES Act money.

About 1,000 households in the county were issued turnoff notices for electricity, Craig said. While it is not a scientific rule, odds are that if someone is behind on their electricity bill, they are also behind on water and sewer, she said. Speaking with several people affirmed that suspicion, and some asked the agency about relief for water and sewer bills.

All told, the agency has seen between a 30% to 40% increase in people seeking its programs. The numbers vary from week to week.

“It is a really difficult, challenging time for everyone right now, so we are trying to meet basic needs, at this point, and emergency needs,” Craig said. ”We used to just serve the families and individuals with emergencies; now everyone has an emergency."

The agency uses bank statements, pay stubs, lease agreements and several other indicators to determine if someone has been affected by the pandemic. Craig anticipated the money would go fast, but said HCAA would consider asking for more funding for the program if the $1 million dries up.

County spokesperson Cindy Mumby said the HCAA can also connect county residents in need to other assistance, like fuel assistance, eviction prevention and food resources, if they inquire about the water and sewer aid. Another added benefit of tasking the agency with managing the money is their expertise in screening and selecting candidates for programmatic assistance.

“They intake requests for all kinds of assistance,” Mumby said. “When folks call about this, they will be able to talk about other resources available for families and individuals.”

The money will be paid directly to the water or sewer provider, depending on who services the area where a recipient lives.

Harford County and several municipalities have their own water funds separate from their general funds, which are used to pay for government operations. Glassman has previously advocated for using CARES Act funding to offset losses to county revenue, but Mumby said county government cannot use the water fund for other purposes beyond its intended function.

As such, it is not a workaround for county government to sidestep usage restrictions on the approximately $45 million in CARES Act funding it received.

“[The water fund] is is a restricted fund," she said. “It is solely supported by its customers, and the revenue is not commingled with county government general fund revenue.”

Critically, the federal funding must be spent by Dec. 30; any excess will be returned to the U.S. Treasury. County leaders in the state have advocated for extending the deadline — including Glassman — but Mumby said that extension is unlikely to come. Glassman previously said he was pacing the expenditures in case coronavirus cases flared up in winter. Though the deadline looms, Mumby said that the county has a plan to spend all the money.

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So far, the county has offered multiple types of grants for businesses, farms, restaurants and, most recently, childcare providers, aimed at minimizing the pandemic’s economic damage. Harford County Public Schools announced last week it had received about $5 million in CARES Act funding from the county and Glassman made a call to other allied agencies for their funding priorities.

“By the end of November, we are going to be out of CARES [Act] funding," Glassman said Thursday morning. "I put that last call out last week on the pandemic call [with allied agencies] and we probably got requests in excess of $10 million over the $45 million. So we are going to spend that and probably still be in a situation where we will need additional funds once the lame duck Congress gets back.”

Aegis editor S. Wayne Carter Jr. contributed to this article.

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