A startling disconnect
Each year, Seattle’s utilities cut power and water to thousands of customers who are behind on their bills, despite a 30-year-old program meant to prevent it
Last year the city of Seattle shut off water to about 4,000 households for unpaid water bills.
Only 165 of those households were signed up for a discount water rate program that would have cut their rates in half, or better. The rest were paying full price for their water, sewer and garbage, despite a paper trail of unpaid bills suggesting they were unable to do so.
When it comes to electricity, it’s the same story. In 2012, Seattle City Light cut power to about 7,000 households for nonpayment, twice as many as in 2011. That is in spite of a 30-year-old program entirely funded by ratepayers that is designed to prevent such shutoffs from occurring.
Shutoffs compound problems. A customer who owes $300 or more must pay 100 percent of the bill, plus a $164 reconnection fee, to get power turned back on.
In the meantime, social service agencies struggle to pick up the slack. Every year, the West Seattle Help Line distributes about $30,000 to help people pay utility bills and keep their water and power connections.
At West Seattle Help Line, about 75 percent of the clients seeking help for utilities are unaware that the city offers a discount to customers who make three-quarters of the area median income, said executive director Tara Luckie.
The city’s Utility Discount Program offers eligible customers a discount of 50 to 60 percent off the regular rate.
Even when customers are made aware of the program, many find it hard to navigate. The application is five pages long and requests information that can be difficult to provide.
Rather than clearing those hurdles, poor people often end up resorting to quick fixes. Luckie said she has met families who carry water in buckets from a neighbor’s house in order to flush the toilet.
The Seattle City Council has urged SCL and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) to do better. In 2012, City Light wanted to raise electricity rates by almost 5 percent every year until 2018. The new revenue would pay for new digital power meters and other infrastructure projects.
The Seattle City Council agreed to the rate increase but pressured the three departments that manage the program —Human Services Department (HSD), City Light, SPU — to step up the Utility Discount Program to prevent the steeper bills from hurting the poorest families.
City Light has undertaken a marketing effort to get about 1,700 new people signed up every year.
They’ve got their work cut out for them. People on the Utility Discount Program make up a fraction of the city of Seattle’s total utility customers: About 4 percent of City Light customers and 8 percent of SPU customers get the discount. (City Light is a larger pool of customers because the utility serves people living outside Seattle.)
SCL estimates that there are enough eligible customers to more than double current enrollment in the program, bringing participation closer to 33,000.
That figure could be conservative: The United States Census estimates that about 80,000 people in Seattle live below the federal poverty level.
Weeks of waiting
Program officials say the application is part of the problem.
“I think that it’s daunting,” said Tracey Rowland, who manages the Utility Discount Program for the city.
It requires income information for every adult in the household and signatures from the applicant and landlord.
Many customers are immigrants who are distrustful of government programs; some do not speak English as a first language but must fill out five pages of material in English; some are paid in cash and don’t have documents to prove how much money they make.
Applicants could be in for a wait. In the best-case scenario, the city can process an application in two weeks. The average is about six weeks.
An application that is incomplete or missing essential documents could take months to process. A staff member from HSD pointed out that this is an improvement — just a few years ago, it would take up to three months.
By the time someone is behind on his bills, help may come too late, said Luckie, of West Seattle Help Line.
Over the last year, the Seattle City Council has passed a handful of ordinances to improve the program.
Under a new law, families with children that are already getting discounted water will no longer be in danger of a water shutoff. This will prevent about 70 shutoffs a year.
Applications for low-income housing are automatically used to qualify people for the Utility Discount Program, streamlining the process for applicants.
“The reality is that it’s a lot of small bites,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien. “That type of small bite approach is kind of where we are.”
City Light has bitten off a lot. With the goal of getting 1,700 new households on the program by the end of the year, outreach workers have littered the region with flyers and applications.
They’ve still got a long way to go. Only 500 new households have signed up.
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