PORT TOWNSEND — The Port Townsend City Council has approved a utility relief program for residents who have been laid off or furloughed because of COVID-19 so they can pay their utility bills and not fall behind.
The program would be funded through community donations, as well as a one-time $25,000 contribution from the city.
Applicants will be asked for proof that they have been laid off, furloughed or had their hours reduced due to COVID-19 precautions. Additionally, they will be asked to show their total current household income is below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The latter is a common requirement for those participating in low-income discount programs.
Approved applicants will receive one-time relief amounts based on their annual incomes.
For example, a single person who makes $25,500 annually will receive $65 in utility relief, whereas a family of three with a total income of $43,440 will receive $110 in utility relief.
The relief will be given on a first-come, first-approved basis and will apply to one utility bill, until either the state of emergency is lifted or the fund is depleted.
Council member Monica MickHager questioned when the state of emergency would be lifted and why the relief program couldn’t continue afterward since many still will be in a state of financial recovery.
“We’re coming forward tonight with this short-term program, and that’s why you have a resolution in front of you,” said City Finance Manager Tony Hillman.
“However, if we decided that we wanted to continue this program as a long-term, ongoing program, we would need to come back with an ordinance and put it into our code, identifying exactly what the process is going to be,” Hillman said.
He added it is likely that $25,000 won’t last long.
“I’m going to guess that by the end of August this is probably going to be accounted for and the state of emergency is not going to be over by the middle of the summer,” he said.
In a letter submitted to the City Council via email, former council member Bob Gray of Port Townsend questioned why the city was creating its own utility fund when groups like Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP) exist and are providing similar financial assistance.
Council member Amy Howard also asked if there was a benefit to putting together the fund in-house rather than through a local nonprofit.
“For this program, since we are using city funds, we want to make sure that they are not being used in a manner that would be a ‘gifting’ of public funds,” Hillman said.
“It just makes more sense for us to do that so then we can account for that, 100 percent,” he said. “When we’re audited, we can prove where the money went, how it was used. I just think it’s a safer way of handling this.”
Safety also was in mind when considering how residents can donate to the fund.
MickHager suggested a donation button be placed on the city website or Facebook page. Hillman noted some concerns with Facebook with regard to credit card information but agreed to revisit the idea for the city website, especially if the relief program becomes an ordinance rather than just a short-term solution.
Hillman did note, however, that the bulk of the city’s customers still pay their bills via mail-in check rather than through the website.
Ken Park can be reached at [email protected].