Down the drain
Tens of thousands of people who can’t afford their utility bills get no help from the city. Now, Mayor Ed Murray wants to know why
As one of his first moves as Seattle mayor, Ed Murray demanded that city officials fix the underused Utility Discount Program, which provides discounted water and power rates to low-income households in and around Seattle.
He gave the three departments that oversee the program — Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities and the Human Services Department — one month to come up with a plan.
It’s been a month, and there’s no plan.
“It turned out to be far more complicated than I had anticipated,” Murray said in an interview with Real Change March 14.
Since taking office, Murray discovered what Real Change reported last year: A ratepayer-funded program set up to help poor people afford power and water is vastly underenrolled. Tens of thousands of people who need assistance paying their utility bills aren’t getting any help, and Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle City Light end up cutting off service to thousands of households every year. (“A startling disconnect,” RC, Sept. 18, 2013)
City workers have long underestimated the number of people who are eligible, and applying for the program is a time-consuming and complicated process. Applicants have to fill out five pages of paperwork and submit proof of income and residency. In 2013, 323 Seattleites started applications but did not complete the process, which can take two to six weeks of back-and-forth with the Human Services Department to complete.
Then there’s the problem of attrition. More than 1,000 households dropped out of the program in 2013, and city officials have no idea why.
Murray said he wants to improve communications between the three departments, streamline a lengthy and convoluted application process, and figure out why so many people on the program don’t stay with it.
Meanwhile, people who cannot afford to pay their bills continue to lose power and water and overwhelm neighborhood emergency funds with requests for help. In 2013, Seattle City Light cut power for unpaid bills to 9,754 households, up more than 2,000 from 2012; Seattle Public Utilities cut water to 3,577, households, down by more than 500 households from 2012.
Murray said help is on the way. He wants to include funding to improve the program in the city’s 2015 budget, which he will submit to the Seattle City Council this fall. He plans to add funding to hire more people or buy improved software to better track and manage the program’s usage.
Too ‘proud’ for a discount?
For more than 30 years, Seattle has operated the Utility Discount Program, funding it by setting rates high enough to cover the discounts.
The program currently offers 50 to 60 percent discounts on utility bills for those making no more than 70 percent of the state median income. About 14,000 households receive discounts on their utilities through the program, which serves customers in Seattle and surrounding communities that use the city’s network of utilities, including White Center, Skyway and Shoreline, among others.
For years, city officials have attributed the relatively low rates of enrollment to a lack of public awareness and customers who were too proud to ask for help. The agencies simply needed to advertise the program better, they reasoned. At West Seattle Help Line, about three quarters of clients seeking help for utilities were unaware that the city offers a discount, according to Tara Luckie, the agency’s former executive director. In 2012, the West Seattle Helpline distributed a total of $30,000 to people seeking help with their utility bills.
Several small solutions offered by the Seattle City Council have failed to enroll more people.
In 2013, Councilmember Jean Godden introduced legislation that prevents Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) from shutting off water to households on the Utility Discount Program where children live, but it barely scratches the surface. If the program had existed in 2012, it would have prevented 68 shutoffs, according to SPU. Godden’s legislation did nothing, however, for the estimated tens of thousands of households eligible — but not enrolled — in the program.
In 2012, Seattle City Light wanted to raise electricity rates by almost
5 percent every year until 2018. The Seattle City Council agreed but pressured the utility to step up enrollment in the Utility Discount Program to prevent steeper bills from hurting the poorest families. The city council did not back up that urging with any specific legislation or expectations.
“The reality is that it’s a lot of small bites,” Councilmember Mike O’Brien told Real Change in September 2013. “That type of small bite approach is kind of where we are.”
Early this year, at Murray’s direction, city staff took a closer look, and what they found was surprising. It turns out that many more people than previously estimated are eligible for the patchwork of discount programs.
The city’s initial estimates were peculiar. In 2013, city departments estimated that 33,000 households in the area were eligible for the program, despite the fact that the United States Census estimates that about 80,000 households in Seattle live below the federal poverty level.
Now, the Human Services Department says there are likely 75,000 households eligible for discounts. If those numbers are accurate, the city is serving fewer than 20 percent of the households eligible for a discount.
Murray is asking city staff to double enrollment by 2018.
“We have not done enough to make this customer-friendly,” Murray said. “We have not done enough to reach out proactively.”
He’s seeking a streamlined application process, interdepartmental coordination and better marketing, he said.
Different programs, different requirements
The city’s Utility Discount Program is just one of several designed to help people with their water and power bills. The number and variety of the programs force customers to navigate a confusing network to get help, Murray said.
Five different programs are available to help. Two of the programs cut bill rates, and three others offer one-time assistance for customers in pay ing off their water or power bills.
Among all programs, there are three different eligibility requirements.
The Federal Energy Assistance Program offers lower utility rates for people living at 125 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $29,800 a year for a family of four. The Seattle City Light Emergency Low Income Assistance program provides one-time assistance to people earning 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or $35,775 for a family of four.
The Utility Discount Program and two other emergency assistance programs assist people making 70 percent of the state median income, or $58,860 for a family of four.
The city oversees all but the federal program.
Jason Johnson, director of the Human Services Department’s Community Support & Assistance Division, said each of the city’s programs was created separately.
“Each program comes from a different funding source and was developed to serve a different need,” he said.
Murray wants to coordinate the programs. They should all have the same process and same eligibility requirements, he said, so there is “one standard, one threshold.”
Separate departments, separate goals
Seattle departments have long failed to work together to help low-income people afford utilities.
The Seattle Human Services Department (HSD) processes all the applications for the Utility Discount Program, but people can enter the program through three different departments: HSD, Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle City Light.
Each department administers the program in its own way, Murray said. In some cases, the three different departments have entirely different goals for enrollment.
In 2013, the departments together increased enrollment by 587 clients, to 14,002. That met the Human Service’s Department’s goals, said spokesperson David Takami. But it fell far short of Seattle City Light’s plan to increase enrollment by 1,700.
“One part of the city doesn’t know what the other part of the city is doing,” Murray said. “If we’re going to be the innovative city that I want, we’ve got to break down these silos.”
Johnson said that is already happening.
“The work of improving this collaboration is well under way,” he said.
A leaky bucket
Collaboration and organization won’t be enough to fill a major hole in the Utility Discount Program. The program is like a leaky bucket: As the three departments sign up new households every year, hundreds of customers are dropping out, and no one knows why.
Some years, more people drop off than apply for the program, according to Murray’s office. In 2010, 4,500 households applied for the program, but 4,900 left, he said.
One likely reason for this is that customers have to reapply for the Utility Discount Program in order to confirm that they still qualify. Non-seniors have to reapply after 18 months, and seniors have to reapply after three years.
So while many leave the program because they move, die or no longer qualify, others may leave the program simply because they did not reapply.
In 2013, 1,418 dropped out the program because they failed to reapply, according to the Human Services Department. Johnson has no idea what happened to them.
“We just never heard from them again,” Johnson said.
CommentsSchools have same problem. Many qualify for free food; few apply. One difference: school district kept kids on the list. Better to have kids fed who didn't qualify than let even one child go hungry. This balkanized, disconnected, uncoordinated patchwork of programs is inefficient, ineffective and demeaning to people who need help. These programs should be abolished in favor of a basic income. The current discount programs are abysmal, preventing the most vulnerable from getting help: those of us in public housing and Section 8. We pay less rent but that doesn't mean we're made of money.
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