Energy Adviser: Utility offers way to help keep families warm

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Are you looking for ways to help Clark County families in need during this holiday season? Clark Public Utilities offers an opportunity through its Operation Warm Heart program, which helps low-income families with the cost of their electric bills.

In the past 26 years, the program has assisted 11,000 local families, said Robert Hill, utility customer service manager.

“A typical scenario might be a single mom with children in the household who needs extra help during the wintertime,” Hill said. “Or it could be an elderly person on a fixed income. We have quite a few people in the program who don’t qualify for other low-income help because they’re just over the income limits. These are people who are in danger of having their services disconnected.”

In 2010, Operation Warm Heart helped 468 households with an average grant of $300. That’s about $140,000 for the year. The money comes from private donors, utility customers and employees and area businesses. It is not the only assistance program offered through Clark Public Utilities. Others are:

• Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program: This federal program offers qualified households help with their heating bills. This year, the utility was able to help about 3,000 households. Requirements are separate from those of Operation Warm Heart.

• Guarantee of Service Plan: Under this plan, income-qualifying customers’ monthly electric bill amount is based on their household income, following federal guidelines. Customers must apply for the program each year.

• Senior Citizen Rate Credit: Customers 62 and older with an annual household income of no more than $24,000 can receive a 50 percent credit on their bills Jan. 1 through April 30.

“We know because of the increase in customer calls this year that more households are facing financial difficulties,” Hill said.

Yet, federal funding through the utility for the energy assistance program has declined from $2.9 million in 2009 to $1.4 million.

“This year, we are very concerned because we are seeing more need at a time of dramatic cuts in federal funding,” Hill said.

How to help

There are several ways to make a tax-deductible contribution to Operation Warm Heart:

• Include your donation in your utility payment and note the donation, or enclose a separate check.

• Pledge a regular contribution to be included on future bills.

• Stop by any of Clark Public Utilities’ customer service locations to drop off a contribution.

Local businesses also participate. Vancouver-based Area Heating & Cooling expects to contribute close to $10,000 to the program this year, said Mike Deloria, sales manager.

“We figured because we are locally owned and have operated here for 35 years, we would give back to the community in a way that, in a roundabout way, is heating-related,” Deloria said. “We started our donation project in 2010 with a $7,750 contribution. This year we hope to reach $10,000.”

If you need help

The utility helps customers through its Community Care counseling services who call 360-992-3000 or email mailbox@clarkpud.com. Trained ComCare representatives also can direct people in need to other community resources, even if their problems are unrelated to their utility payment. For example, BenefitsCheckUp helps thousands of people each year connect with government programs that can help them pay for prescription drugs, health care, utilities, and other needs.

ComCare representatives also help customers better understand their utility bills, develop budgets and set-up special payment plans. They are available to help arrange a walk-through energy audit at your home or to help you apply for home weatherization programs.

A personal gift

Clark Public Utilities customers also can buy gift certificates and make gift payments for a family member or friend. A gift payment in any amount can be directly applied to an individual’s utility account. The gift can be anonymous if you choose.

But one of the best things utility customers can do would be to join Operation Warm Heart with a monthly donation of an extra $1 or extra $5 on their monthly bill, Hill said.

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to energyadviser@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.