Utility discount program gets a boost

The city’s Utility Discount Program, which gives a break to low-income residents on their Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities bills, is great but underutilized. But that’s changing quickly.

In 2014 the program had about 14,000 households signed up; the city estimates that somewhere between 70,000 and 86,000 are eligible. That’s a lot of people who could be getting help that aren’t. So the Mayor set up an inter-departmental team to try to boost those numbers, with a goal to reach 28,000 by 2018.

Better advertising over the last two years has raised enrollment to 21,000 — halfway to the goal. ButĀ the team has been working on two major efforts to boost enrollees further. The first has been to implement “auto-enrollment” in the program: rather than rely on residents to discover the program and enroll, the city can get a list of eligible residents from the Seattle Housing Authority and automatically sign them up (though they have a chance to opt-out if they want).

The second effort is to correct a misunderstanding that was codified in the original program, related to federal housing subsidies. Under the current municipal code, Seattle residents living in federally subsidized housing operated by SHA or King County get a utility allowance. The belief at the time was that if a utility discount was provided then their rent would be adjusted up — resulting in more money in the landlord’s pocket but no net change for renters. Because of this the Utility Discount Program ordinance specifically excludes customers living in federally-subsidized housing.

But the city has thoroughly investigated this now, and realized that their original belief was wrong: adding a utility discount will not cause a rent adjustment. So the city has brought a bill to the City Council to remove the exclusion for those living in federally-subsidized housing. This should add up to 10,000 more households to the program.

It does come at a cost, though. In 2016, it means a loss of revenues for both SCL and SPU of $2.4 million and $1.9 million, respectively. The utilities are still working through what it means for 2017 and beyond (SPU is about to reset their rates for 2017-2019), but their first estimate is that it will be about a 0.5% increase in rates for SCL customersĀ and $1.10/month for SPU customers attributable to the utility discount program.

It also hits the city budget, since utility taxes partially fund city operations through the General Fund. For 2016, the expected revenue decrease is $394,000 combined from SPU and SCL. Council member Herbold asked yesterday whether those get offset by expense cuts within SPU and SCL; unfortunately, they can’t because SCL gets very little General Fund money, and SPU’s General Fund money is already designated for specific purposes by ordinance. But at least for 2016 the revenue decline will be “in the wash” with all the other revenue sources that fluctuate over the year.

Since SPU and SCL are overseen by two different Council committees, the change to the Utility Discount Program is split into two separate ordinances, and both got voted out of committee by unanimous votes and will come before the full Council next week — where they will not see any opposition.