By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News
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“It [would] open it up to more families,” city Customer Service Manager Rick Hostetler said.
The 5-1 vote, with City Councilman and committee member Dan Di Guilio opposed, recommended changing the possible percentage discounts to 25 percent and 35 percent, up from 20 percent and 30 percent, and taking into account household size when determining an applicant’s eligibility.
With the committee’s recommendation, city staff expect the proposed changes to be on the full City Council’s Jan. 7 meeting agenda.
Hostetler said city staffers also are proposing to use $60,000 in new electricity utility tax revenue, expected to be generated from rate increases taking effect next year, to augment the city funds available for the program.
The city has budgeted $90,000 for 2014, up from $83,000 in 2013, for the discount program, bringing the total available next year to $150,000.
Worried about money
Di Guilio said during the utility committee meeting Tuesday that he was concerned about dumping more money into the program just because the city has it available.
“I want to help folks, but just because we have money left over doesn’t mean we need to go spend it,” Di Guilio said.
Currently, city residents making between $3,375 and $2,501 in a three-month period can get a 20 percent discount on their electric bill per month, while residents making $2,500 or less in that same time period can get a 30 percent discount.
Under the proposed plan, city staff would use the federal poverty level for a given household size to determine which discount is applied, Hostetler said.
For example, this change would allow a family of four bringing in just more than $3,375 every three months, and therefore not currently eligible for the discount, to qualify under the new program, Hostetler said.
“You’re expanding it to include the number of individuals that are in the family, and that’s a huge difference,” he said.
The proposed changes would qualify a household making 100 percent of the federal poverty level or less for a 35 percent monthly electric bill discount, Hostetler said.
In the four-person-household example, this would be an annual income of $23,550 or less.
A household bringing in between 101 percent and 125 percent of the federal poverty level would be eligible for the 25 percent discount, Hostetler added.
Hostetler said 219 residents are enrolled in the discount program as of November — 95 getting a 20 percent discount and 124 getting the 30 percent — with a high this year of 431 people enrolling in January.
“You’re talking about anywhere from $4,000 to $8,000 [paid out by the city] per month currently, the way we use the program,” Hostetler said.
At the committee meeting, Hostetler initially recommended splitting the discount into a 10 percent, 20 percent and 30 percent tiered structure and making households bringing in 100 percent, 125 percent and 150 percent of the federal poverty level, respectively, eligible.
Committee members, which include City Council members and appointed residents, were concerned that allowing too many people to be eligible would deplete the funds too quickly and not help the neediest of residents enough.
“My concern is . . . by trying to do good, we end up hurting those who need it the most,” said committee member Paul Elliot, adding that he preferred giving larger discounts to those most in need rather than making discounts available to more people.
Councilwoman and committee member Sissi Bruch proposed the solution that was ultimately recommended by the committee.
“That way, we’re helping the most needy and we widen the net,” she said.
Di Guilio said he supported this move.
“I’d be more supportive of this than opening up to a much larger group of citizens when it comes to income levels,” he said.
Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.