Petersburg officials refute claims of water disconnection during COVID-19

The Tri-Cities

PETERSBURG, Va. (WRIC) — Petersburg officials held a press conference Wednesday morning in response to a recent letter from Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver alleging that the city had cut off water during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Oliver wrote a letter addressed to City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides on May 10, ordering that the city no longer cease proving water to its residents. Norman wrote that shutting off water to residents was not only endangering their health and the health of others.

“People need water to keep a sanitary residence and protect themselves and others,” Dr. Oliver wrote. “All data and recommendations point to the need for running water to reduce risks from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

RELATED: Virginia health commissioner orders City of Petersburg to restore running water during COVID-19

The City of Petersburg refuted Dr. Oliver’s order, saying they have not cut off water service to Petersburg residents since the end of January. As of today, Ferrell-Benavides said there are only five residents without water service — those five are because of plumbing issues or issues dealing with social services.

The city said they are working with the residents to restore their water accounts which include sewer and trash services.

According to Dr. Oliver’s letter, the City of Petersburg had been asked more than once to reconnect water service — on April 27 by Delegate Lashrecse D. Aird and again on April 30 by the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative.

City of Petersburg Mayor Sam Parham said that no Petersburg resident has had their water turned off during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Delegate Aird took a complaint from one constituent and ran with it to the Governor’s Office to get an order specifically to discriminate against the City of Petersburg and our efforts. If she would have reached out to our administration and looked at what we are doing as a city and not go by one complaint, that gives the city a black eye at this time for no apparent reason. I think it was more of a political ploy and we are disheartened by the way she portrayed the city,” Mayor Parham said.

Parham said that fiscal challenges have plagued the city since its financial collapse in 2016. But over the last three years, the city has been able to turn around its utility fund and increase collection rates.

“The City of Petersburg was seemingly singled out in this matter and pressured to blindly restore water services. It is out ultimate goal today to accurately report the facts,” Parham said. “The city has been and continues to prioritize the health and safety of our community members.”

City officials said that there are 12,850 water service accounts city-wide. From July 1 to July 31 — 731 accounts were suspended. Out of those 731 accounts, 320 accounts were reconnected and 14 new accounts were created.

That still left 264 accounts unaccounted for, so the city decided to go door to door trying to address water disconnection issues prior to Dr. Oliver’s order.

“Our efforts today, our efforts yesterday have been ongoing efforts,” Ferrell-Benavides said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have a press conference to announce what we were doing. We did what we’re suppose to be doing because we are public servants.”

Delinquent water bills in the city has created a nearly 4 million dollar deficit. Ferrell-Benavides tells 8News some residents haven’t paid their bill in two years and nearly 200 residents are illegally connecting to the city’s water supply, but not paying the city. Ferrell-Benavides adds right now there are 3,210 customers with a bill past due.

Mayor Sam Parham and City Manager Aretha Ferrell-Benavides are expected to meet with Dr. Oliver later this week. Parham also mentioned that the city will be requesting a meeting with Governor Northam to discuss the order that was issued.

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