Our lead-in is a familiar line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) that ends with, “Nor any drop to drink,” describing the plight of a beached sailor on an island surrounded by salt water. By extension, the line describes a scenario where abundance prevails but is, for a reason, unavailable.
COVID-19 has created such a situation for Virginia households where wage earners have been left unemployed and, in an unknown number of instances, unable to pay for water services. It is difficult, if not unimaginable, to appreciate that predicament.
As it turns out, Virginia is one of fewer than a dozen states that has implemented a moratorium on water shutoffs during the pandemic. In context, the National Resources Defense Council (December 2020) has estimated that, nationally, some 34 million households face utility shutoffs. In contrast with those of other states, the Commonwealth’s moratorium extends until the earlier of 60 days after the end of the state of emergency or until the governor determines that the moratorium is no longer necessary based on economic and health conditions.
The pandemic has focused appreciation of these most basic and essential services (electricity, water) upon which every citizen relies and depends for existence and subsistence.
The pandemic has focused appreciation of these most basic and essential services (electricity, water) upon which every citizen relies and depends for existence and subsistence. That daily dependence and expectation are underwritten by a sense of abundance, unending availability. Should such a life necessity be provided to all without cost? Or, at least, reduced cost related to income? This question is a repetitive motif in connection with the concept of the common wealth, i.e., wealth inequality. Perhaps the pandemic is emphasizing this inquiry.
In the 1950s, water was provided to the residents of Fairfax County by a number of small vendors. County officials and administrators realized the jurisdiction’s growth as a suburb of DC was quickly outdistancing and outracing the capacity of those vendors to supply a burgeoning metropolitan area. A not-for-profit (NFP) corporation called Fairfax County Water Authority (FCWA) was formed under legislation in 1957 by the Commonwealth to prepare for the growing residential and commercial demands.
Some entities, such as FCWA, are sometimes also known as public-benefit corporations, subject to the authority of a government jurisdiction. Moreover, by definition and under federal and state law, an NFP corporation enjoys an exemption from income taxes as long as it meets its designated public-benefit purposes. FCWA is governed by ten directors, nine of whom are appointed by the supervisors of each of the nine magisterial districts in their capacity on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and the tenth is selected by the Board chair. Nearly $2 million people in the Northern Virginia communities of Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Fort Belvoir, Herndon, Dulles, Vienna, Alexandria, Falls Church, and Fairfax City depend on Fairfax Water. The multiple service areas demonstrate the fact that water seeks its own level and is little troubled by boundaries.
FCWA is a large enterprise generating some $200 million in revenues and operating a complex and extensive system for service delivery and water quality through over 4,000 miles of water mains. Water quality is monitored in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Health. Financially, FCWA pays its way through its monopoly authority to establish usage rates to be assessed to homeowners and commercial enterprises.
The pandemic raises the question that, given its unique and protected status as a purveyor of a commodity, what is FCWA’s social responsibility to customers who may not be financially able to meet payment for services?
The pandemic raises the question that, given its unique and protected status as a purveyor of a commodity, what is FCWA’s social responsibility to customers who may not be financially able to meet payment for services? By analogy, emergency hospital care is required under federal (and, often, state) law, without regard to a patient’s ability to pay. Such charity care is, in part, offset by surcharging health insurance coverage for other patients. It is common practice for hospitals to bill for the original service and, at some point, declare it a bad debt and write off the amount.
A minimum wage of $15 per hour translates into just over $31,200 annually, which is identical with the federal poverty level for a family of five. As Virginia struggles to emerge from the economic havoc of the pandemic, a duty arises to consider the implications of the virus upon those least capable of absorbing the losses. FCWA’s service area encompasses a population characterized as among the nation’s wealthiest. A program to exempt low- or poverty-level income customers from payment for water appears achievable. Of course, that possibility is contrary to FCWA’s history of commoditization of water. Critics will claim creation of a deadbeat mentality or class of citizens. By comparison, the FCWA board members are compensated at the rate of $12,000 per annum for 12 scheduled meetings; its Chair receives $15,000 yearly.
Can the Commonwealth learn to share its common wealth from the experience thrust upon it by the pandemic? Naturally, as is often the case, there is a biblical moral from Matthew (10:42): If any person helps one of these little ones because they are my followers, then that person will truly get his reward. That person will get his reward even if he only gave my follower a cup of cold water.
Virginia counts 457,000 cases of COVID infections, with 5,800 deaths. Biblical commands or imprecations are helpful as moral guides; actual numbers are much more instructive. Many of our Commonwealth’s fellow citizens might qualify for cost-free or reduced-cost water; a decision to enable a segment of the population to live with greater dignity and share of our common wealth has presented itself. A vast majority of the citizens of the Old Dominion have, by example, demonstrated common social responsibility in the wearing of masks and social distancing during the pandemic. That phenomenon offers a bridge to reach the conclusion that, in light of the abundance of water–everywhere–we can share a drop to drink for all.
The metaphor of the ancient mariner–deprivation in the midst of abundance–fails as a principle for the social glue that coheres a society as some members may be deprived of essential needs by a failure to move beyond “fend for yourself.” .