The Jefferson County Public Utility District has changed the name of its low-income program and hopes to double its impact from last year.
Formerly known as Power Boost, the PUD’s newly renamed Rainy Day Fund provides emergency assistance grants to eligible low-income residents who are in danger of losing their utility services.
The ball got rolling on changes to the PUD’s low-income support programs in June, when PUD Customer Service Manager Jean Hall went 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 fewer than 500 eligible participants in 2017 to 628 and growing by the end of May. The fund was projected to run out of money by October unless the PUD made a change.
Dunbar and Hall brought the issue to the PUD Board of Commissioners, who voted Sept. 4 to increase the program’s budget to $350,000. Dunbar also asked the board to increase the budget to $400,000 for 2019, which was approved along with the rest of the budget Nov. 20.
PUD Commissioner Kenneth Collins said 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,” Collins said. “We live in an economically distressed rural county. Many of our customers struggle to pay their utility bills, especially in the winter.”
Hall credited the PUD Citizen Advisory Board for the participation jump, recalling how the 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,” Hall said.
Prior to this spring, low-income PUD customers were eligible for the program if their income did not exceed 125 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $15,000 a year.
In May, the PUD commissioners approved an increase, to 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which would allow a family of four earning up to $37,650 per year to participate.
Hall invited PUD customers who think they might qualify for the program, or who need other assistance, to contact their customer service representatives.
“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,” Hall said.
“We also have winter shut-off protection, and protections for customers with special medical needs. We do everything we can to help. When we can’t do more, oftentimes our partners can.”
OlyCAP provides income verification for all PUD assistance program applicants, and it also administers the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to help with winter heating costs.
The Rainy Day Fund differs from the bill credit. PUD customers have the option to support the fund by checking boxes on their bills, either to round up to the nearest dollar each month, or to make a one-time or recurring donation of any amount.
Hall said some customers give $5 per month, while others give $250 once a year.
“This is for people who are on the verge of homelessness, who face severe health risks if they lose their water or power, or both,” Hall said.
PUD Communications Manager Will O’Donnell said the idea for changing the name to the Rainy Day Program 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,” O’Donnell said. “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.”
O’Donnell said the program raised about $30,000 last year, but he estimated it would need at least double that amount.
“We’re asking our customers to help their neighbors who need it most: people who have to choose between eating and heating their home,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell uses the 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.