Those struggling to pay their utility bills in Fort Collins may soon see some reprieve under a program currently being developed by local legislators.
Fort Collins City Council is working on the details of a possible utility assistance program called the Utilities Low-Income Assistance Program that, if implemented, would help struggling residents reduce the rates of their electric bills.
“In about 2014, we looked comprehensively at how we meet the needs of low-income customers or people otherwise challenged and in need of assistance,” Lisa Rosintoski, Customer Connections Manager with Fort Collins Utilities, said. “What we found is that our payment assistance could be more robust… but that there are also individuals locally that need ongoing support.”
While the details of the program are still not finalized in its current form, the proposed assistance program could address customers’ electricity costs in multiple ways. According to Rosintoski, the program would help qualified low-income customers make their utility costs more affordable through a variety of means, including covering a portion of a customer’s bill with supplementary funds or offering them discounted rates based on their income through the Low-Income Qualified Rate.
“What that (Low Income-Qualified Rate) would allow people that have an ongoing need based on their limitations of salary would get discounts on their utility bills going forward,” Rosintoski said.
To qualify for the program, residents would have to meet the standards of the State of Colorado’s Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, LEAP, which the City of Fort Collins would utilize as an administrative partner for this program, according to a memo from city staff.
Under LEAP’s standards, residents would qualify for the Income-Qualified Rate if their household income was determined to be at or below 165 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. According to Pete Iengo, Project Manager with Fort Collins Utilities, CSU students would potentially be eligible for the program, if any supplemental funding they receive for their education or housing satisfied LEAP’s “point-in-time” standard of evaluation. Iengo estimated that around 9,000 people, or 16 percent of utility customers in Fort Collins currently meet these requirements and would be eligible for assistance.
While the program is still being developed by city staff, the current understanding of the Low Income Assistance Program and Income-Qualified Rate would be implemented temporarily as a pilot program in 2017 if approved by City Council. According to Rosintoski, the cost of the pilot program would be covered by the city’s reserve funding.
However, if the program were to be adopted permanently by the city after its pilot period, funding would need to come from other sources. Rosintoski estimated that the program could cost around one million dollars if 75 percent of eligible customers sought assistance. According to Councilman Ross Cunniff, possible methods for funding full implementation of the program are still being debated and worked on by city staff.
“There are some other things we’re looking at right now,” Cunniff said, “Instead of jumping to a million-dollar program… are there other things we can do to reduce need and address people concerns.”
While the details of this proposed program have yet to be finalized, residents can expect direct action on it in the coming months. Per their website, City Council is scheduled to vote on a First Reading of the program on August 16th.
“We don’t want people getting their power turned off if they’re truly in need,” Cunniff said. “The question is how far should the program go, and are there other ways to address part of the need?”
If approved, the program will be considered again in a Second Reading on September 20th. This program is in addition to and will not take the place of other current rate assistance programs offered by the city.
Collegian Assistant Opinion Editor and Columnist Sean Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.