April 30, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 18

News

City officials see uptick in Utility Discount Program participation, but Sawant wants more

By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

Donna Mikula speaks at a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s Energy Committee, where Seattle City Light shared its progress in ramping up enrollment in the Utility Discount Program.

Photo by Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

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Seattle City Light is ramping up enrollment for an underutilized program that offers people up to 60 percent off of their utility bills if they make less than 70 percent of the state’s median income.

A yearlong marketing campaign yielded an additional 1,093 new households to the city of Seattle’s Utility Discount Program in 2013, and already Seattle City Light has approved applications for 900 new households in 2014.

In May, an interdepartmental team of employees from Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities and the Human Services Department will unveil a plan to further increase enrollment for the program, fulfilling a request Mayor Ed Murray made soon after he took office.

Seattle City Light officials shared their progress with the Seattle City Council’s Energy Committee April 23.

They said making people aware of the program, even within the city’s administration building, has been the biggest problem.

“A lot of people didn’t even know this program existed,” said Mat McCudden of Seattle City Light, adding that Seattle City Light conducted an internal campaign to make city officials aware that the discount was available.

Seattle City Light has been working on improving enrollment in the program for a year. In January, soon after he took office, Murray upped the ante. Murray had discovered what Real Change reported last year: The 30-year-old, 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 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).

In 2013, 14,002 people received the discount, and city officials estimated that a total 33,000 households 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 offering discounts to fewer than 20 percent of the households eligible for a discount.

The program has suffered because it is spread across three different city departments, which makes it difficult to navigate, Murray told Real Change in March. People looking for help with utilities can sign up to five separate programs — including the Utility Discount Program — that have three different eligibility requirements (“Down the Drain,” RC, March 26).

Murray 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.

At the April 23 meeting, Seattle City Light officials outlined their marketing campaign. The department distributed thousands of advertisements to eligible customers through schools, supportive housing programs and other services. They also contacted people who are on waiting lists for subsidized housing.

City Light officials said their hands are tied in some respects. The city cannot provide the discount to people who live in Seattle Housing Authority or Section 8 housing because the federal government already subsidizes those households with a utility credit, they said.

City Councilmember Kshama Sawant pressured the group to do more, particularly to find ways to provide the discount to Seattle Housing Authority and Section 8 clients.

She also suggested that the city automatically enroll people who live in addresses that the city knows are reserved for low-income households.

“Opt-out is always a better approach than opt-in,” Sawant said. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter how easy you make the process; opt-in is always harder.”

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