City leaders suggest multiple funding sources, potential formats for expanding utility assistance

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

The Lawrence City Commission discusses a potential expansion of utility assistance as part of its meeting Oct. 11, 2022. Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen participated virtually.

Lawrence city leaders on Tuesday discussed multiple potential funding sources and methods to expand the city’s limited utility assistance programs, with plans to discuss options in more detail at a future meeting.

The Lawrence City Commission previously asked to consider a possible expansion, and as part of its meeting Tuesday discussed the city’s two utility assistance programs and options for expanding the assistance or discounts available to residents. Potential funding sources discussed included federal pandemic relief dollars, money from the city’s affordable housing trust fund and general fund dollars, and both internal and external programs were suggested for consideration.

Commissioner Amber Sellers, who initially suggested the discussion, said that she would be interested in looking at a model with two tiers — for instance, one for those under 138% of the federal poverty level and another for those between 138% and 150% — that discounted bills by 65% for the first tier and 45% for the second. Sellers also expressed interest in providing utility discounts to people who receive housing vouchers, disability benefits, veterans benefits or are otherwise on a fixed income. To better inform the discussion, Sellers asked the city to provide a report on how many residents might quality for a discount based on what is known about city income levels.

“I would like to see us take a deep dive into this,” Sellers said.

The city estimated it would cost $676,716 annually — which includes $67,500 for a new city position to run an internal program — to expand the discount program to residents of all ages under the same income eligibility used by the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP). LIEAP is a federal program that provides a one-time-per-year benefit to households making 150% or less of the federal poverty level. The city estimates about 700 households would receive a utility discount if the city were to expand the program to all residents in that income range.

Sellers said she thought looking at using funds from the city’s affordable housing trust fund could be an option, and that given all the considerations she would not anticipate a program being set up this year, but rather as part of the 2024 budget process. The affordable housing trust fund receives general fund dollars and proceeds from a special affordable housing sales tax.

Expanding eligibility for city utility discounts is one approach suggested for expanding assistance, but other funding sources and methods were also discussed.

Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said the city could potentially use federal pandemic relief dollars provided to the city through the American Rescue Plan Act to allocate funding to the Housing Stabilization Collaborative, which could then provide residents assistance specifically for city utility bills. Finkeldei said those funds could allow the city to provide utility assistance in 2023, as opposed to having to wait for a program to be set up as part of the 2024 budget. Finkeldei said there has been a high demand for local assistance provided by the collaborative, and that the entirety of its monthly allocation of $53,000 was already expended on the first day of the month.

“So the need is high,” Finkeldei said. “As we talk about what we do with ARPA, I do think that’s something we could look at.”

Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said she was interested in an expansion of utility assistance for the long term, and was less agreeable to using one-time ARPA funds to create a program just for 2023. Larsen said she was interested in looking into whether affordable housing trust fund dollars could be a funding option. Commissioners ultimately agreed that they wanted to further discuss the details of an expansion as well as how to spend the city’s approximately $8 million in remaining ARPA funds.

Currently, the city’s utility discount program only serves residents 60 and older with very low income, and about $60,000 annually is used to provide a 65% discount to 75 households through that program, according to a city staff memo. Another program created last year is funded by donations from other utility customers, and has provided one-time utility assistance to 11 people so far, for a total of about $4,000 in assistance.

The city provides water, sewer and solid waste services for Lawrence residents. City utility rates have been increasing in recent years, with more increases planned. Commissioners indicated on Sept. 20 that they supported a water and sewer rate proposal that would increase rates by 8.75% next year, 10.25% in 2024 and 11% in 2025.


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