August 27, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 35


City marketing campaign boosts enrollment in discount utility program by 12 percent

By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

At a cost of more than $37 million a year

Increasing enrollment in the Utility Discount Program to 28,000 people, by 2018, will cost more than $37 million a year and increase ratepayer bills 0.2 percent.

"It is practically not measurable. I think it is a small increase that I hear [ratepayers are] willing to pay to make this an affordable city." ~ Mayor Ed Murray

Illustration by Jon Williams, Real Change

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Enrollment in Seattle’s underused Utility Discount Program has grown 12 percent since January through an ongoing marketing campaign and a program that auto-enrolls customers who receive emergency utility assistance and allows affordable housing providers to enroll new and current tenants.

At the end of June, the Utility Discount Program was providing discounts to 15,700 customers and surpassing enrollment figures of the past six years.

The city estimates that 72,000 people are eligible for the program.

Mayor Ed Murray said in February that he wants to have 28,000 people enrolled in the program by 2018. Shortly after taking office, Murray discovered what Real Change had reported previously: the ratepayer-funded program set up to help poor people afford power and water is vastly under-enrolled (“Down the drain,” RC, March 26).

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).

In 2013, Seattle City Light cut power to 9,754 customers and Seattle Public Utilities cut water to 3,577 customers.

Earlier this month, Murray released a plan that includes a series of steps that the city’s Human Services Department, City Light and Public Utilities will take to continue increasing enrollment through online applications, allowing other housing agencies to enroll customers and streamlining the internal process to make the program easier to navigate.

The city — and ratepayers — will need to pay for the increased enrollment.

The Utility Discount Program will cost almost $19 million in 2014. If the mayor is successful in increasing enrollment to 28,000 people by 2018, the program will cost more than $37 million a year.

Rate payer bills will go up, but by 0.2 percent.

“It is practically not measurable,” Murray said of the rate increase. “I think it is a small increase that I hear [ratepayers are] willing to pay to make this an affordable city.”

Already done

City officials started adjusting the Utility Discount Program in 2013 to boost enrollment.

City Light unveiled a marketing campaign last year to bring 1,700 new households into the program each year until 2018.

City Light increased the number of marketing mailings to potential customers by 25 percent in 2014.

The city also allowed customers who receive one-time emergency assistance on their water bills to be auto-enrolled in the program.

The effort worked. In 2014 from January to May, the city processed 2,706 applications, a 74 percent increase over the same time period in 2013.

Next steps

Mayor Murray is recommending a number of other changes to the program to boost enrollment.

He recommended that the Utility Discount Program require only one month of income verification. Currently the application requires three months.

He also wants the city to create a place where people can apply for the program online, which would include an automated screening tool.

One suggestion could raise rates for current Utility Discount Program clients.

Mayor Murray recommended that City Light and Public Utilities offer the same discount — 50 percent. Currently City Light offers a 60 percent discount, which the mayor’s plan said makes people think the programs are independent and complicates marketing efforts.

By offering a flat 50 percent discount for both, the programs will be easier to understand, the report states.

The mayor’s plan calls for extending the recertification timeline. Today, Utility Discount Program clients have to reapply every 18 months. The mayor’s plan asks people to reapply after two years.

A quarter of Utility Discount Program customers who did not renew said they were unaware that their enrollment had lapsed, according to a survey conducted by city officials.

The Utility Discount Program is a leaky bucket, losing customers every year.

In 2010, 4,500 customers applied for the program, but 4,900 left according to the mayor’s office.

Plugging the leak will be key to improving enrollment in the program, said Phil West, City Light’s customer service and energy delivery officer.

“Acquiring new customers was a big deal, but we really worked on how do we keep customers,” West said. “I think the results are going to be great, and I think we’re going to hit the goals by the end of 2018.”



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