The introductory session of “Making Ends Meet: A Workshop on Water Affordability” was held on Wednesday evening, May 30th at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. The full day workshop takes place on Thursday, May 31st. It is supported by The Water Center at Penn, American Rivers, the Mayors Innovation Project and Clean Water for All. The workshop brings community and utility leaders from around the nation together to discuss and find solutions for the growing water affordability crisis.

The introductory session told “The Philadelphia Story” of how too many low-income Philadelphia families were struggling to pay their water bills and how in response, Philadelphia water and community leaders came together to create an innovative income based tariff system to ensure affordable water for all Philadelphians. Led by Howard Neukrug, Executive Director of The Water Center at Penn, a panel including Debra McCarty, Commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department, Rob Ballinger, Community Legal Services and Sonny Popowsky, former Consumer Advocate of Pennsylvania, described how Philadelphia created the ground breaking income based water tariff system known as the Tiered Assistance Program (TAP).  

TAP came about due to significant input from multiple stakeholders, all of whom recognized the critical need to address the mounting water debt of low-income households. Bringing stakeholders together on a regular basis allowed participants to understand each other’s perspectives and find a solution that worked for all parties. Having dedicated public advocates to represent water customers was also essential. According to Debra McCarty, “the process matters as much as the final outcome.”

On several occasions, credit was given to Philadelphia Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez whose district had a heavy concentration of households below the poverty line that were also in water debt. Councilwoman Sanchez took the initiative to sponsor the legislation that ultimately led to the TAP program, showing how the efforts of one person can catalyze others to make significant and necessary changes. Now through TAP, Rob Ballinger noted, “We have a powerful tool to achieve water affordability.” Sonny Popowsky added that Philadelphia is fortunate to have water leaders who are willing to take progressive positions on environmental and consumer issues. Philadelphia’s TAP program can now serve as a model for other utilities in terms of the program’s structure and well as how it was developed.

Former Philadelphia Mayor, Michael Nutter, closed the evening by reminding the audience that water is one of the most essential resources on the planet and that it is our collective responsibility to ensure that all households are able to afford water. He appealed to the audience to stay active, stay engaged and stay involved because “this work is not only for ourselves, but more importantly, for our children.”