PUD Expands Low Income Support, Changes Program Name

In June of 2018, Jefferson County PUD Customer Service Manager Jean Hall came to General Manager Larry Dunbar with a problem.

The PUD had budgeted $200,000 to fund its low-income and senior bill credit program, which provides qualifying customers either $39.50 or $20 reductions on their monthly bills respectively. But the program had grown rapidly, from under 500 eligible participants in 2017 to 628 and growing by the end of May 2018, and the fund would be out of money by October unless the PUD made a change.

Dunbar and Hall brought the issue to the PUD’s Board of Commissioners, who on Sept 4th voted to increase the program’s budget to $350,000. In 2019, Dunbar has asked the board to increase the budget further still, to $400,000.

According to District 2 Commissioner Ken Collins the first step in creating the program was making the funding available, the second was to make sure it got to the people who needed it “Expanding eligibility just made sense. We live in an economically distressed, rural county. Many of our customers struggle to pay their utility bills, especially in the winter.”

Hall also credits the PUD’s Citizen Advisory Board (CAB) for the participation jump. CAB studied the PUD’s low-income support programs throughout 2017. “They determined we needed to increase our outreach and promotional efforts and to expand the eligibility, both of which we’ve since done.”

Prior to the spring of 2018, low-income customers were eligible for the program if their income did not exceed 125% of the Federal Poverty Rate, or about $15,000 a year. In May, the commission approved an increase to 150% of the Federal Poverty Rate, which would allow a family of four earning up to $37,650 per year to participate.

Hall invites customers who think they might qualify for the program or who need other assistance to contact customer service ASAP. “We have the bill credit program and we offer things like budget billing to help spread out the cost of the utilities over the whole year and keep people from being surprised by jumps in bills. We also have winter shutoff protection and protections for customers with special medical needs. We do everything we can to help. When we can’t do more, often times our partners can.”

Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP) provides income verification for all PUD assistance program applicants. OlyCAP also administers the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), helping with winter heating costs, which  is expected to be available beginning sometime in November.

The PUD partners with both OlyCAP and St. Vincent de Paul on an additional program. Formerly known as “Power Boost,” the PUD’s newly re-named Rainy Day Fund provides one-time grants of up to $500 in emergency assistance to eligible low-income residents who have received shut off notices and are in immediate danger of losing utility services.

Unlike the bill credit, which is funded through electric base rates, PUD customers have the option to support the Rainy Day Fund by checking boxes on their bills to either round up to the nearest dollar each month or make a one time or recurring donation of any amount. Some customers give $5 per month and some give $250 once a year, said Hall.

“This isn’t for people who are just having a hard month or are repeatedly delinquent.” explained Hall. “This is for people who are on the verge of homelessness or face severe health risks if they lose their water or power, or both.”

Why the name change? According to PUD Communications Manager Will O’Donnell, the idea for changing the name came from Dunbar and from one of the promotional pieces created to encourage people to give to the program.

“Local artist Michael McCurdy made a really lovely stop motion animated video to promote the program,” said O’Donnell. “In the video a mother and child walk through the rain to a neighbor’s house to receive some shelter and some tea. The idea is that we all have rainy days, and it’s the kindness of others that helps us get through.”

“We’re asking our customers to help their neighbors who need it most: people who have to choose between eating and heating their home. Last year we raised about $30,000. There is need for at least double that amount, and I would love to be able to help get us there.”

O’Donnell is using imagery from McCurdy’s animation to promote all of the PUD’s low-income support programs across Jefferson County.

For more information, or to request assistance, call the PUD’s customer service at 360 385-5800 or visit jeffpud.org/assistance.