Two Maryland nonprofit legal organizations and the state’s utility consumer advocacy office have partnered to help Baltimore City residents navigate challenges with their water, gas and electric bills.
The Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, the Pro Bono Resource Center and the Office of People’s Council together launched the Utility Bill Assistance Project for Baltimore City Residents, which will hold free legal clinics for Baltimoreans who need assistance with utility bill issues.
The program will pair participants with volunteer attorneys, who will provide counseling on how to apply for utility discount programs, represent clients in court, and connect them with other Maryland resources.
Amy Hennen, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service’s director of advocacy and financial stabilization, told Baltimore Fishbowl on Monday that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated financial issues for many Baltimore residents and caused some to be unable to pay their utility bills.
“People are really struggling,” she said. “Trying to keep your family fed and keep the power on and be able to purchase your medicine and everything else that you need to do is complicated and difficult for many people in our city.”
Hennen added that people are staying at home more due to COVID-19, placing a greater demand on residential water and power needs.
As part of the program, attorneys will talk to clients about utility bill issues and the next steps they can take to remedy their situation, Hennen said.
“They can talk to the client about what’s going on, what they’re seeing, what they’re experiencing, and what steps they’ve taken. Then we have a layout process of all the next steps,” she said. “The attorney will talk them through and help them figure out where they are in the process, whether they have attempted to get a credit and if it has worked and talk to them about appeals and other things like that.”
Once someone secures a spot in a clinic, they will be able to send in necessary documents and meet virtually with an attorney to discuss their case.
People whose water bills are higher than expected should call the Department of Public Works to request a “turn on, turn off test” to determine whether there is a leak inside of their home or in the waterline going into their home, Hennen said.
Hennen said customers should also contact DPW to attempt to access the city’s online portal that shows information about day-to-day and hour-by-hour water consumption, which can also be helpful in determining whether there is a leak.
“If there’s a point in the day that the water usage is zero, then that is probably an indicator that there’s not a leak,” she said. “But if there’s never a point where the water usage is zero–in the middle of the night or whenever nobody’s home–that can be an indicator that there’s a leak.”
A constant high level of usage can also indicate a significant leak, Hennen added.
The Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service and the Pro Bono Resource Center obtained a $125,000 grant from the Abell Foundation to fund the program.
Clinics will be held on a rolling basis, and people can reserve a virtual spot by calling the Pro Bono Resource Center at 443-703-3052.
Attorneys who are interested in volunteering can visit www.mvlslaw.org.
Hennen said the program plans to serve more than 100 people.
“If there’s a greater demand, we have some flexibility in terms of trying to serve more people than that,” she said, adding that there will be about two to three attorneys per clinic.
Maryland utility companies will be allowed to resume utility shutoffs Nov. 15, and they were allowed to begin sending out shutoff notices on Oct. 1.
Hennen worries how impending utility shutoffs will affect Maryland families as the weather grows colder.
“We’re really concerned about what’s going to happen to folks as we go into winter if and when people are facing shutoffs,” she said.
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