City of Lawrence to develop donation program to help low-income residents pay their utility bills

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured Thursday, July 7, 2016

The City of Lawrence is developing a new program that will allow residents to make small monthly donations that will help low-income residents pay their utility bills.

The Lawrence City Commission voted as part of its meeting this week to authorize the development of a voluntary utility donation program. Once the program is in place, it will allow residents to round their utility bills up to the nearest dollar or designate another amount to donate monthly.

The city currently offers only a limited utility assistance program for low-income residents age 60 and older, and Mayor Jennifer Ananda, who suggested the voluntary donation program, said expanding the program was an important step, especially as utility rates increase.

“I know that it’s an inevitability that rates will have to increase as the cost of providing those services increases, and we know that the previous program was primarily for aging individuals who were unable to pay,” Ananda said. “We know that there are far more members of our community who struggle to pay their utility bills, and they are essential services that folks need.”

City utility bills include charges for water, solid waste and stormwater, and have increased significantly in recent years. Currently, the average Lawrence utility customer using 4,000 gallons of water per month pays about $103 per month. That’s an approximately a 33% increase since 2015, when the average customer paid about $77 per month, according to past city budget documents.

The current program provides a 65% utility discount to very low-income residents age 60 and older. To qualify, an individual resident can make no more than $13,739, and people who file as head of household on their annual tax return can make no more than $18,601, according to the city’s website.

Out of the city’s approximately 32,000 utility customers, only about 80 households are currently participating in the discount program, according to Utility Billing Manager Kristy Webb.

Ananda initially suggested the donation program in February 2018 as a way for the current program to cover more residents, but at the time the utility billing system the city used didn’t have the capability. The city put in place a new billing system in December that does offer that capability, according to a city staff memo to the commission.

Other Kansas cities, including Topeka, Salina and Kansas City, Kan., also have similar programs, as do other utilities such as Evergy Energy and Black Hills Energy, according to the memo. In addition to accepting donations, the City of Topeka provides $6,000 toward its program as part of its annual budget.

Apart from the ability to accept donations, Ananda said, expanding city funding for utility assistance would also be an important conversation for the commission to have.

“Obviously our low-income aging residents need assistance, but there are all kinds of families and individuals who also need that assistance,” Ananda said.

Similar to other utilities, the city is recommending that an outside charitable agency administer the funds raised through the donation program, according to the memo. A request for proposals will be issued to select an agency to administer the program and the agency’s administration fees will need to be funded from the city’s general fund. The memo states that once the City Commission approves the final program it could be in place in three or four months.

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