EDITORIAL: Neighbors heating neighbors

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We’ve all watched as the Jefferson County Public Utility District No. 1 completed a $100 million–plus takeover of electric service in most of the county. No transition this large and complicated will be handled perfectly, and this one has had its bumps and grinds. But we accept that the PUD is working through the issues, and have high hopes for the future as this acquisition plays out.

In the wake of Puget Sound Energy’s departure, one of the more desperate needs is replacing the significant charitable contributions PSE made to help low-income households pay winter heating bills. In 2011-2012, for example, PSE donated $223,109 to this cause, assisting 437 households. The year before, it was over $284,000. Many of these households that benefited have young children. Winter is coming. These are truly our neighbors in need.

The Low-Income Housing Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), is operated through the Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP). Low-income households apply and are qualified through a review of household income, number of household residents and historic heat usage for that housing unit. Funds are used to pay for a variety of heating sources (electric, wood, oil or propane) to keep that household reasonably warm through the winter. Payment is made directly to the heat utility.

When PSE went away, so did the PSE annual donation for energy assistance in Jefferson County. The Jefferson County PUD, as the new energy provider, is barred by state law from making a loan to OlyCAP and doesn’t have the excess resources to contribute in the same way. That means the LIHEAP fund is, today, empty. The OlyCAP website and phone message system informs applicants that its funds are exhausted. Applications are to be accepted again in November, but the level of funding is uncertain.

What can replace PSE’s donation to OlyCAP’s energy assistance fund?

You can.

Every household served by the Jefferson County PUD can sign up to contribute a few extra dollars toward their heating bill each month. That money will be set aside by the PUD and transferred to the OlyCAP program.

George Randels, who raised this issue with the Leader, suggested that PUD customers “round up” their bills to the nearest $5 or $10. But Jim Parker, the PUD manager, said the PUD billing system is not up to the task of automatically setting aside the dollars added by rounding up; instead, the system would credit that amount to the customer’s account toward future charges. The PUD may buy an improved billing system, and the new one may be able to manage the “round up” idea.

But for now, Parker said that those willing to help their neighbors in need of heat can call the PUD office (385-5800) and request that their monthly bill be increased by some amount to be donated for low-income energy assistance. It could be as little as $1, or more likely $5, $10 or $20. One PUD official is donating $50 each month to the cause.

Parker noted that if every PUD customer earmarked just $1 toward energy assistance, it would generate $200,000 each year.

Also PUD customers can mark their power bills to make a one-time donation to the fund. But we strongly urge a continuing donation to pitch in a little each month to this continuing need.

It doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t – on its own. But if thousands of customers were to join the effort, the PUD and OlyCAP would be well on the way to ensuring that families and their kids don’t freeze this winter.

The PUD intends to promote this practice in the coming weeks. But the leaves have turned and are falling today; winter is around the corner. Please don’t wait. It’s a simple, inexpensive step to help our most vulnerable neighbors stay warm this winter. We urge all who read the Leader to call the PUD at 385-5800 today and start making a donation in November.

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