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City, Water Board urged to restore shut off water service during pandemic

Dozens of local community advocacy agencies and individuals are uniting in a call to the City of Buffalo and the city’s Water Board, urging them to restore service amidst the pandemic to those whose water has been shut off.

During a conference call Thursday, participants were introduced to a man identified only as Mike. He is a 67-year-old Vietnam veteran who, two years ago, suffered a stroke and was unable to work. He has other serious health issues as well, COPD and diabetes. He missed payments, he explained, because his very limited income forced him to choose between food and other necessities.

"I didn't have the money. I was out of work six months. The only money I had coming in would cover the mortgage and my car insurance. I needed the car to get to the hospital, which is across town from where I was. I'd go to the VA hospital, across town from there."

His water was shut off for 16 months. Mike explained he would sometimes buy gallons of water for use including cooking and bathing. Other times, he would collect rain water though his leaking roof to use for washing. With help from the Western New York Law Center, he recently had his service restored.

Community advocates believe as many as hundreds more may still be without service. While they say the city has made an effort to restore water service to many during this ongoing pandemic, more needs to be done.

"At this time, we know that staying at home and washing your hands is the just universal guidance for this crisis. And so no resident of the city of good neighbors should be forced to live without water," said Andrea Ó Súilleabháin of Partnership for Public Good, one of nearly 70 agencies that have co-signed a letter to Mayor Brown and the Buffalo Water Board, urging both to restore water service, and also step up communication to members of the public in need of having their service restored.

"We've heard from leaders in government, and in the medical field, that the best precaution one can take to prevent contracting COVID-19 is to wash your hands," said Kevin Quinn, supervising attorney for the Center for Elder Law and Justice. "We've also heard that the elderly are most vulnerable to becoming severely ill with this virus. We are calling on the city of Buffalo to be more proactive to ensure that Buffalonians have access to essential water service."

When asked about having his service restored, Mike admitted "it felt great to take a shower." His attorney, Stephen Halpern at the Western New York Law Center, is concerned for what may happen to Mike and other low-income individuals after the pandemic eases.

"I don't think it's remotely unreasonable to suggest that there be a forgiveness program, of all the debt that people owe to the Water Board," he said. "Those programs have existed in the past in other cities."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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