City of Lawrence moving forward on donation program to help low-income residents pay their utility bills

photo by: Journal-World photo illustration

A City of Lawrence utility bill is pictured in a photo illustration.

The city of Lawrence is moving forward with plans to create a voluntary utility donation program to help low-income residents pay their city utility bill.

The city, which provides solid waste, water and sewer services, plans to contract with Catholic Charities to administer the program, and an agreement for the service is expected to come forward soon.

Utility Billing Manager Kristen Webb said Thursday that city staff is currently reviewing a contract with Catholic Charities internally. Webb said staff hopes to have the contract finalized and the technical aspects of the assistance program worked out in the city’s billing system by the end of February, allowing utility customers to sign up to make donations sometime in March.

Webb said that once the program is in place, city utility customers will have the option of signing up to donate to the assistance program. As part of the program, she said customers could chose to round up their utility bill to the nearest dollar, or indicate a flat amount to donate as part of their monthly bill. Those seeking assistance from the program would do so through Catholic Charities.

The potential expansion of the city’s limited assistance program has come up in recent years as city utility rates have increased.

The Lawrence City Commission has approved multiple increases to city utility rates in recent years, and in December finalized increases to residential water, sewer and stormwater rates for 2021, as well as increases to commercial solid waste rates. Those changes will increase the bill for a residential customer using 4,000 gallons of water from about $103 to $110 per month, or by about $86 per year, according to city calculations. The commission has brought up expanding the assistance program before, and following a suggestion from Commissioner Jennifer Ananda, voted in July to authorize the development of a voluntary utility donation program to help more people get assistance.

The current program only serves residents age 60 and older with very low-income. For example, to qualify, a single person 60 or older must make less than $13,739 per year and a head of household must make less than $18,601 per year, according to the city’s website. Only about 80 households currently receive assistance through the program, according to information the city previously provided the Journal-World.

The city put out a request for proposals for an outside charitable organization to administrator the donation program in August, and Catholic Charities was the only organization to respond, according to a city staff memo to the commission. A draft contract with Catholic Charities was received on Dec. 9.

The administration fees for Catholic Charities will need to be funded from the city’s general fund, though it is not yet determined what the cost to the city will be. The memo states the city is currently negotiating a price per application processed, and the cost of the program will depend on how many people apply to donate funds and how many apply to receive assistance. Once the city and Catholic Charities approve the agreement, it will be submitted to the City Commission for final approval.

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