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Originally published Monday, March 11, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Get clean water to children of Seattle’s struggling families

Seattle should offer struggling families with children more help with water-utility bills, writes guest columnist Jean Godden.

Special to The Times

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AFTER taking over as chairwoman of Seattle City Council’s utilities committee last year, I began hearing troubling stories about children living in homes without access to clean water. A teacher told me one of his students showed up at school unwashed and unclean — the result of his family having had their water turned off. Human service providers shared stories of families using buckets filled with water from neighbors’ homes to flush toilets.

It became clear that, despite Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) offering low-income rates and emergency assistance, there are families in this city who lack access to potable water and sanitation.

After discussing the problem and possible solutions with SPU, I came to understand that water shut-offs are the only real hammer the city has to get people to pay. The harsh fact is that those who are economically strapped may not always consider utility bills their first or highest priority.

Although adults responsible for paying bills might rightfully expect shut-off notices, it seems unconscionable that children, who have no option over bill payments, would be deprived of such a basic necessity.

Under current law, a household in the low-income utility discount program that has received notice of a shut-off is eligible for an emergency assistance credit up to $340. That credit can be accessed only once per year.

That is a generous subsidy, one that reflects Seattle’s commitment to protecting and enhancing health and safety. But last year, it wasn’t enough for some. As we heard during a committee meeting on Mar. 5, 138 low-income households that receive discounts had their water shut-off in 2012. And about 50 percent of these, an estimated 68 homes in total, were families with minor children.

During that committee meeting, we also heard the heart-rending stories about what it’s like when a family’s water is disconnected. Rev. Ron Marshall from the West Seattle Helpline told about people who begged buckets of water from neighbors to wash their laundry. Representatives from the Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul and the Ballard Food Bank shared stories of parents changing diapers without water to wash the child or clean their hands.

Therefore, I am proposing legislation that will modify the Seattle Municipal Code to make qualifying households eligible for a second emergency credit if they can demonstrate that a child under the age of 18 is in the home. Given Seattle Public Utilities’ bimonthly billing cycle and time frame for issuing shut-off notices, this change would, in practice, allow low-income households with minor children to avoid water shut-offs.

Using 2012 as an example, a second chance for the 68 households with children would have cost an estimated $23,000. This is a small subsidy in the context of SPU’s almost billion-dollar annual budget. I anticipate voting this legislation out of the committee April 2.

This is the humane solution. As Tara Luckie, director of West Seattle Helpline, a nonprofit social-service agency that assists with water shut-offs, explained, “Our clients are the working poor, those individuals struggling to make ends meet while working hard and raising families. Often they seek our help due to a hardship created by an emergency situation beyond their control, such as an unexpected layoff, a medical condition or a death in the family.”

It is to those working poor that we believe we can offer a helping hand and make it possible to say that, in Seattle, there should be no child without water.

Jean Godden is a member of the Seattle City Council.

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