Camas looks at utility assistance options

It is among several proposed changes to city utility code

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Some Camas citizens may soon have more options when it comes to paying their utility bills.

During the past two years, city staff has been working to create options for customers who struggle to pay for water and sewer services at the regular rates.

Proposals discussed during a City Council workshop earlier this month include establishing an emergency utility assistance fund and implementing a budget billing method.

According to Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson, low income assistance would be provided through the Inter-Faith Treasure House to those who qualify.

The Treasure House is a social service agency that administers several outreach programs for low-income individuals, families and senior citizens in Camas and Washougal.

“Part of this change will require that we enter into a (memorandum of understanding) with the Treasure House,” she said. “Council would appropriate some money to them, and they would be the ones going through the tax records, determining what can be done to help and whether they qualify for our program. It is prescribed by the state, for the most part.”

According to a proposed resolution, the maximum annual emergency credit per household would be $250.

Budget billing, intended for low-income customers who are on fixed-incomes, involves estimating a customer’s yearly bill based on past use, then dividing it into equal monthly payments.

“People who are getting a Social Security check, they need to have a stable dollar amount all year long,” Huber Nickerson said. “We can keep their payments level so they know what they need to pay, and they can manage their money this way.”

Usage would then be reviewed at the end of each year to determine the following year’s monthly payments.

During a workshop in February, Councilwoman Shannon Turk questioned why budget billing can’t be available to all Camas customers.

“It’s a lot of work on our end. We don’t have a state-of-the-art system like Clark PUD,” Huber Nickerson responded, referring to Clark Public Utilities’ EqualPay program. “We have one that works, but it takes some staff time to actually manage things.”

The proposed utility code changes would also include no longer allowing customers to request an extension for payment to avoid disconnection of services.

“(This way) we are not letting them dig themselves into a hole that they can’t get out of,” Huber Nickerson said. “That’s really hard to watch sometimes.

“Instead, we would rather offer them a chance to receive help financially, either through the budget billing process or the financial assistance.”

Currently, if a customer does not pay his or her utility bill, it is eventually sent to a collection agency. Huber Nickerson would like to change that.

“We want to get rid of collection agencies, and instead lien the property,” she said.

A lien would be placed against the property for unpaid utility bills that are above a certain dollar amount. When an owner sells the property, the lien must be paid off at closing with proceeds from the sale.

“You do get your money, eventually,” Huber Nickerson said, adding that the majority of Clark County cities now use property liens to collect on unpaid debt. “I think it would help the city, because we would actually be almost guaranteed to get all of our money back, instead of cents on the dollar. It gives us more teeth.”

This is the second round of utility billing changes being implemented by the city.

In October 2014, the City Council approved adjustments aimed at improving customer service, saving staff time and providing greater equity to billing.

Improvements included maintaining a base rate to all customers for water, sewer, storm drainage and garbage to pay for the infrastructure that all customers utilize, whether they are home or not; extending the billing cycle from 20 to 30 days; and no longer using door hangers as notification of pending service disconnection. The notification instead arrives in the mail twice prior to the service disconnection for non-payment. If it is a rental property, notices are sent to the owner and the renter.

The City Council will discuss the low income utility assistance options again during its workshop on April 6, and have a resolution to establish an emergency utility assistance program and MOU with the Inter-Faith Treasure House ready for a vote at the regular meeting on April 20.

“Phase 2 is designed to give some relief to a segment of our customer base,” Huber Nickerson said.

According to Mayor Scott Higgins, a conversation about providing utility payment assistance to low income residents started in 2013. At the time the city was considering for all customers a series of rate increases, which were ultimately implemented in January 2014.

“That was an important driver for council at the time, and me as well,” he said. “We wanted to try to figure out a vehicle to help that segment of our community.”