Three years ago, the Jefferson County Public Utility District (PUD) turned off the power to 295 households in the month of January. This year, there were 16 households that were disconnected in …
Three years ago, the Jefferson County Public Utility District (PUD) turned off the power to 295 households in the month of January. This year, there were 16 households that were disconnected in January for failure to pay.
“People just didn’t want to pay us back then,” said Jim Parker, PUD general manager.
After the PUD took over the East Jefferson County power system from Puget Sound Energy in April 2013, it had difficulty getting people to pay on time. The issue was most pronounced in late 2013 and early 2014. January 2014 was the height of the shutoff woes, with 295 customers disconnected. In February of that year, there were 181 households disconnected, and in March of that year, 175 customers had their electricity disconnected.
Between November 2015 and February 2016, there were no shutoffs, Parker said.
“The reason it was so high in 2013 was because people didn’t want to pay us. They were testing the system,” Parker said of his impression of those days. “When we started enforcing the rules, the numbers went down.”
Back in 2013, the PUD also was starting to work on its policies for helping low-income customers who were having difficulties paying their bills in the winter. Those policies could change this year.
Power Boost, a voluntary program to which customers donate a set amount of money monthly to help others in need, was started by the PUD for customers with means who wanted to help those in trouble.
The first year in which the PUD collected Power Boost funds, it raised $15,741. The following year, after a campaign and a $20,000 donation from Port Townsend Rotary, that figure rose to $73,126. In 2015, the contributions dropped to $36,602. By the end of 2016, the contributions had totaled $34,343.
Funds had been going to Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP) as well as to St. Vincent de Paul to help people in need who came to those agencies.
The PUD also raised its own bar on helping low-income seniors and people with disabilities with a $20/month discount, an increase from the $7.49/month discount on the base rate that it had been offering. (The base rate went to $20/month, so the PUD simply raised the discount to that amount.)
Last year, the PUD’s Citizen Advisory Board recommended that the PUD do more to help people with low incomes pay their power bills by extending the discount to all low-income people, not just those who are seniors or disabled, as had been the policy.
Now, said Parker, the issue is how to vet customers to ensure that their incomes are, in fact, low.
The PUD is considering using 125 percent of the federal poverty level, Parker said. Using that guideline, a household of one making $15,075 a year would qualify as low income. A family of three making $25,525 a year also would qualify, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ federal poverty guidelines.
PUD officials are planning to talk with OlyCAP officials this month to see if that agency would assist in helping the PUD obtain the information from low-income customers in order to qualify them for a discount.
Commissioners also have talked about raising the discount from $20 each month to $35/month, instead of a percentage of the bill.
“Initially, we’d roll all the people who qualified for LIHEAP [Low-Income Energy Assistance Program] into the program and then we’d keep the people who are in it now,” Parker said.
There currently are 300 of some 19,000 customers receiving a discount. Parker said 200 of those did not receive any help through LIHEAP.
“We could easily have 700 in the program fairly quickly,” Parker estimated.
Parker said OlyCAP has experience working with low-income people, so there’s a hope that OlyCAP can help and that the PUD won’t have to hire more people to run the program internally. The issue is how much OlyCAP wants to charge the PUD versus the cost of the PUD hiring more customer service representatives to take on those duties.
“We wish we could have rolled it out earlier, but there are nuances,” Parker said of a new program.
Parker also said that the PUD is one of the few PUDs that do not charge late fees when people are late in paying their bills.
Since there were problems with people complaining of unclear notices two years ago, Parker said, the reminder of an unpaid bill is “more friendly.”
“It doesn’t say ‘Due upon receipt’ anymore. Now it gives a date,” he said.
“And people can use credit cards, and we don’t charge for that, either,” Parker added.