A new program in the works could help cash-strapped Vancouver water and sewer customers get emergency help with their bills.
Similar to Clark Public Utilities’ longtime electric bill assistance program, the Vancouver City Council on Monday mulled starting its own Utility Customer Payment Assistance Program for low-income residents who fall behind on their water, sewer and stormwater bills.
The program would get $100,000 — a portion of the late fees collected on city utility bills — to get started, but then the idea is to fund it through donations from other customers and businesses, Public Works Director Brian Carlson said. People could make one-time or ongoing tax-deductible contributions, he said.
The same people who qualify for the public utility’s Operation Warm Heart would be eligible for the city program, which would provide as much as $200 once every 24 months. The average bill for a family of four is $132 every other month. Both households must be at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level.
“We’re not talking about an ongoing assistance program,” Carlson said. “We’re really talking about a one-time emergency assistance program.”
The program enjoyed support from a majority of the council: Councilor Bart Hansen, office services manager at Clark Public Utilities, suggested the idea not long after taking office last year, and Mayor Tim Leavitt expressed his enthusiasm for it during his State of the City address last month.
A draft ordinance of the assistance program is scheduled to go before the city council April 11, with a second reading and adoption set for April 18.
“This is literally my dream come true,” said Hansen before the meeting. “I want to get the word out that you can help contribute, and it directly affects our customers’ basic needs.”
About 5,000 people could qualify for the assistance under the federal standards, but not every person may need it, Vancouver Utility Administration Manager Amy Sorenson said.
The city council did express a few concerns, among them that the $100,000 starter fund may run out before enough donations are raised to withstand demand. Councilor Jeanne Stewart also said that she wanted to wait until enough private donations were collected to start the program, rather than use sewer fund money to seed it.
“It’s hard for me to justify, with all the public paying a 9 percent increase” on their sewer bills this year, Stewart said. “Now we’re saying we want to reduce our revenue, even though it’s for a good cause.”
Carlson, however, said that it could take months or even a few years to raise that money. The city gets an average of $527,000 in late fees a year, which accounts for about 0.8 percent of the total sewer fund, he said.
“I look at late fees as a windfall; you don’t balance your budget through late fees,” Councilor Jeanne Harris said. “For us to be able to say yes to (those who need help), is the right thing to do. I’d challenge us to do a little more, because the need is so great.”
Other, smaller startup costs include $6,300 to print envelopes for donors, a one-time $5,400 fee to Clark County to process the donations, plus an ongoing handling fee of 12 cents to 20 cents per donation. Supplies, postage and staff time costs are uncertain, Sorenson said.