Port Townsend City Council approves utility relief grant program

More than $30,000 meant for outstanding accounts

PORT TOWNSEND — The Port Townsend City Council approved more than $30,000 in utility relief funds for businesses and residents left with outstanding utility bills following a moratorium on payments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a unanimous vote Monday, council members accepted a proposal from Director of Finance and Technology Services Connie Anderson, who told the council there were roughly 15 delinquent accounts with outstanding utility bills from people who, for whatever reason, didn’t access other relief funds.

The initial provisions for the program set in 2020 were fairly restrictive by design, Anderson said, as officials were unsure how much demand there would be.

In a memo, Anderson said funds available for distribution are a combination of the $25,000 initially set aside and $8,138 received from private donations. With only $1,455 spent from the account, over $31,600 remains. Council members also approved a motion to have any remaining funds transferred to Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP), where some applicants had been directed.

As the utility payment moratorium came to an end earlier this year, Anderson said letters were sent to roughly 32 individuals — businesses, residents and landlords — making an effort to resolve outstanding balances. In a memo, Anderson said as of April 1, there were about 15 individuals with an average balance of $1,900 who have not or were unable to access other COVID relief funds.

“So we have these 15 accounts that are, for whatever reason, kind of stuck in the middle,” Anderson told council members.

Typically municipalities cannot gift money to businesses and individuals, but Anderson said in March 2020, the Washington Attorney General’s Office issued a memo clarifying state and local governments could gift public funds, “for the primary purpose of protecting and promoting public health which may have an incidental benefit on private citizens and entities.”

Anderson argued there was a public benefit to pay these bills, as the accounts were held by local residents, businesses and landlords who haven’t accessed relief funds. Anderson said she designed a grant application process that is, “simple yet structured,” she said, “where the person needs to tell us a little bit about their story.”

The background information need not be invasive, Anderson said, but applicants needed to demonstrate a legitimate need.

Members approved the motion, but some members noted a failure on the part of the City Council to reform the initial distribution method earlier.

“We set aside a big chunk of money, but then the process that we set up for using it didn’t really enable us to use that well at the time when it was most needed,” said council member Libby Urner Wennstrom.

“And I’m not sure how to best to learn from that. Let’s remember that as institutional memory and do better with it if something like this comes up again.”

Deputy Mayor Amy Howard noted when the program was set up, the goal was to have funds accessible to the most amount of people, and limited the number of times an individual could receive funds.

“In learning from that we should have re-examined sooner and have done this process a year in instead of two years in,” Howard said.

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached by email at psegall@soundpublishing.com.

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