In retrospect, Janis Belkowski said she should have hired a plumber to repair a leaking outside faucet.
But the 69-year-old Port Vue resident, concerned about cost because her only income is a $1,136 a month Social Security check, asked a family member to fix it. He thought he did so by tightening the valve.
When the faucet started leaking again, a condition Ms. Belkowski said she didn't discover until her monthly water bill showed higher than normal usage, the family member tightened the valve again.
I asked her why she hadn't made frequent trips outside to check on the faulty faucet. She said she has a bad leg that makes it difficult for her to get around. She said she also suffers from diabetes and kidney disease.
Ms. Belkowski normally uses between 3,000 and 4,000 gallons of water a month. She was "shocked" when the next bill from the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County said she had used 30,000 gallons of water.
Yes, the faucet was leaking again.
By the time she had the problem resolved, the authority said her water meter showed she had "used" more than 69,000 gallons of water in a span of five months last year.
Because she owed money from previous water bills, she owed a total of $544.89 to the authority and $1,053.41 for sewage to the McKeesport Municipal Authority. The Westmoreland municipal authority shut off her water on March 14.
She called Tom Ceraso, the municipal authority's assistant manager, and asked why she hadn't received a registered letter notifying her of the shutoff. Mr. Ceraso said registered letters for shutoffs weren't required any longer. He reminded her the authority had posted shutoff notices on her house.
Ms. Belkowski asked Mr. Ceraso to place a lien against her three-bedroom brick house for the amount she owed. He said the authority isn't allowed to do that. She asked if it had money set aside for low-income and needy customers. Mr. Ceraso said the authority isn't permitted to have such funds.
"I told him I don't have the money to pay the bill," she said. "One of his employees later told me I had to pay the entire water and sewage bill, plus a $100 deposit and a $30 re-connection fee before they'd turn my water back on."
Ms. Belkowski, a retired fundraiser, said she called more than a dozen governmental and social service agencies to see if they would give her money to pay the delinquent bill. They declined.
Although her doctor sent the Westmoreland municipal authority a letter stating that she is treating Ms. Belkowski for diabetes and kidney disease, Mr. Ceraso said water service for delinquent customers will be restored only if it is needed for the operation of medical equipment treating the patient.
Ms. Belkowski's condition doesn't require such equipment.
I asked Mr. Ceraso about an installment plan that would allow her to make regular payments and include an additional amount until she caught up.
"We tried that before when she got behind in her bills, but she broke the agreement by not making the payment we agreed upon," he said. He added that customers have only one opportunity to complete an installment payment plan.
Ms. Belkowski said the municipal authority's policy about delinquent customers is unreasonable. Mr. Ceraso said the authority has tried to work with her, "but she hasn't made a full payment on her bill in 10 of the past 12 months."
So how has she been living without water for six weeks?
It hasn't been easy.
She bought gallons of water for cooking and cleaning, switched to paper plates and plastic ware so she didn't have to wash dishes and bought several plastic buckets from a dollar store to fill with snow to flush her toilet. She filled the empty water jugs at the home of a friend where she also has taken showers.
Ms. Belkowski said she didn't tell her three adult children about her lack of water until the day before Easter.
"I didn't want to bother them," she said. She hasn't asked them for money because "they all have financial obligations of their own."
A daughter who lives in Westmoreland County insisted she gather all her dirty laundry and bring it out for an "all-day" use of her washer and dryer.
She said she has become "dehydrated and lightheaded" because she has been trying to conserve water.
"I'll go back to work if I can find a job," she said. The company she worked for as a professional fundraiser has gone out of business.
She said a woman she met online has offered to pay her outstanding water and sewage bill, the $100 deposit and the $30 fee to restore her service.
"That would be wonderful," she said. "This whole thing has been a nightmare."
Lawrence Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and 412-263-1895. Please include your name and day, evening and cell phone number(s). Due to volume, he cannot respond to every email or phone call.