At the Dec. 2 Issaquah City Council meeting, the council unanimously voted to establish a utility assistance program for low-income households. The program will help reduce the impact of utility costs and will start on Jan. 1.
The start date coincides with the effective date of the new utility tax and rate increases that come with the 2020 budget.
During lengthy conversations leading up to the adoption of the 2020 budget, an assistance program was often discussed. Councilmembers wanted to assist residents who will be impacted by the new increases in utility taxes and rates.
The council had previously directed staff in November to draft a utility assistance program.
“I want to thank city staff for putting together this program so quickly,” said council president Tola Marts.
Deputy council president Mariah Bettise echoed that appreciation.
“As we faced looking at utility taxes and everything that we went through with the budget, this was incredibly important to me and I was just really happy to see this in place,” she said.
A brief overview of the ordinance was given by David Fujimoto, the city’s director of sustainability.
“The ordinance would adopt a utility assistance program which would be an expansion of the utility assistance to include additional residents regardless of age, disability or housing type,” Fujimoto said.
The initial program will launch at the beginning of 2020 and later undergo a review. The city will work to make adjustments going forward.
Two things will happen within the newly adopted program. It will include low-income households renting or owning in both single family and multifamily housing, regardless of age, and the current low-income senior monthly utility discount will expand to include renters, not just homeowners.
That existing program offers low-income residents, age 62 and older, in a single family home, a 75-percent discount on water and sewer bills. Those residents are also exempt from paying fees for stormwater. That discount currently can only go to homeowners, but now the program will expand to include senior renters of single family homes.
Low-income seniors in multifamily homes qualify for the new low-income household program.
While the assistance takes the form of a discount for low-income single family seniors, it becomes a rebate for the other low-income households.
In broadening the qualifying conditions, the new low-income household program increases the number of assistance eligible households.
Participating households can apply once a year for a rebate check. In 2020, the rebate amount per household will be $100, which is roughly the anticipated cost of the utility tax and rate increases for the average household.
The total cost for the city to implement the assistance program, as it is currently written, will vary depending on enrollment levels, but is estimated to be between $108,000 and $216,000 per year. Fujimoto explained that this would not be money spent by the city, but rather money that will not be going into the corresponding utility fund bucket it would have otherwise gone into.
The income qualification requirements for the program align with those of the utility assistance program at Puget Sound Energy (PSE) called PSE Help, which is run in partnership with regional nonprofit Hope Link.
Households in Issaquah that qualify for PSE Help also will qualify for the city’s new program. There are currently 354 Issaquah households that are enrolled in PSE Help. They will be contacted to enroll in the city’s new program.
The city will align its program enrollment and income verification process for its new program with the existing PSE program, saving costs and simplifying the administrative process. Citizens will apply through PSE Help and PSE will communicate with the city.
“The linkage to PSE’s program helps with (simplifying) that because they will already have to undergo an income verification process, so we would not want to repeat that in this case,” Fujimoto said. “Our hope is that the application process can be very simple.”
There was also council discussion about accessibility and education of the programs, as well as potential barriers that the city will be addressing. For example, the city is planning to do outreach to qualifying individuals whose first language is not English.
The city will work with local organizations that provide services to low-income households and also with organizations that provide language and cultural services to Issaquah households.
To inform as many citizens as possible about the new assistance program by the start date, outreach and promotions are underway with help from PSE Help and the King County Assessor’s Office.
There was also mention of other assistance programs available to citizens from regional agencies and neighboring jurisdictions, including the King County Assessor’s Office, PSE and Recology.
The council had previously requested more information about the number of cost-burdened households that would be covered under the new assistance program. Data in the agenda bill identifies 1,200 households, both renters and owners, cost burdened and extremely cost burdened, that fall into the category of extremely low-income, and the administration anticipates that those households would most likely all qualify for the new assistance.