Burbank Water and Power will propose to the City Council a $1.5 million program that would help residents laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic pay their electric bills.
The potential program suggests that the utility dedicate part of its public benefits fund to give electric bill credits to local residents who are on unemployment insurance. The council is expected to decide whether to OK the program and may give direction regarding some details, including the size of the credits, during its Tuesday meeting.
The amount owed for city utility services recently has increased, according to a staff report the council is scheduled to review on Tuesday, jumping from just under $1 million overall to about $4.8 million. About 2,200 users have had past-due accounts for 91 days or more.
“BWP really understands that people are making some really tough choices right now,” Joe Flores, marketing manager for the utility, said in a phone interview. “Especially if you’re not receiving any type of income and if you are on unemployment insurance, you have to make some pretty tough choices about what bills [you’re] able to pay.
“We want to be able to offer that next level of assistance … and put them on that road so that they’re going to be able to sustain themselves in the long term.”
To be eligible for the proposed program, according to the staff report, residents with past-due accounts must subscribe to a payment plan, while those who have been paying their bills on time must remain current on their bill.
Businesses are not eligible for the program.
BWP staff members propose that applicants living in single-family homes receive a $75 credit every month for four months, while applicants living in multifamily residences receive a $50 credit monthly for the same period. The average bill for a multifamily residence, which typically uses less energy, ranges from $85 to $100, according to Flores.
The staff report also requests the program begin on Nov. 1 and end on June 30, 2021, or until it reaches its $1.5 million limit. However, the City Council could adjust those amounts and the timeframe.
BWP also implemented other initiatives aimed at helping people affected by the pandemic, Flores added. The utility isn’t charging late fees or disconnecting service to users who have failed to pay their bills, and has suspended rate increases.
BWP has offered other programs intended to help low-income households afford their water and power bills, but Flores said at a BWP board meeting this month where the notion of credits was discussed that the utility hasn’t seen a huge increase in those programs’ enrollments.
Part of the reason, he said, could be that those initiatives, as well as similar state and federal aid programs, demand financial documents that applicants normally collect over the course of a year. But many people who had their jobs cut by the pandemic may not have the necessary documents showing their sudden lack of income.
The proposed program, however, would require only that applicants show they are on unemployment insurance, potentially making it easier for residents to apply.
When he brought up the potential program at the board’s Sept. 3 meeting, Flores suggested that credit recipients be given a bonus to their aid if they sign up for automatic bill payments and paperless billing. That point quickly became a major point of contention among board members, with some wanting to make it mandatory to ensure the BWP benefited from the increased efficiency of those practices.
Others expressed discomfort with that approach, however, pointing out that some customers might like their current policies and feeling that it would be unfair to push people into BWP programs they didn’t want.
Ultimately, the program being proposed to the City Council does not include a stipulation that aid recipients must change their billing processes.