Utility bill help not enough to offset Columbia residents' needs

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 | 2:26 p.m. CDT; updated 5:42 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 20, 2011

COLUMBIA — People who asked the city for help paying their utility bills had their best odds earlier this month. That's because the city had twice the usual pot of money to give out.

It was gone in eight hours.


How to help

The city of Columbia offers two programs to help for utility customers whose City Water and Light services have been or are about to be disconnected.

Heat, Energy and Light — Gives emergency assistance to low-income families with school-age children.

Citizens Assisting Seniors and Handicapped — Gives emergency assistance to low-income adults older than 60 and adults with disabilities. 

To donate:

Visit the website, call 874-7380 or return the pledge form included in your November utility bill.

  • Donations start at $1 per month.
  • 100 percent of donations go to utility bill payments for persons in need. No administrative costs are paid from the gifts.

To apply for help:

To qualify for utility assistance, a resident's income must be less than 150 percent of the federal poverty guideline:

  • Individuals must make $1,362 or less per month.
  • Households must make $1,839 or less per month.

To apply, call 874-7356. The phone line is open from 8 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The programs run out of money quickly, so call at the beginning of the month.

The maximum aid for an individual or household is $200 in a calendar year. If the amount owed is more than $200, the resident must be able to pay the difference to receive help.

Source: Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services.

To get a free energy audit:

Columbia Water and Light will visit your home or business to help you conserve energy and water. The audit includes a check of the interior and exterior of your property. For more information, visit the website or call 874-7325.

To learn about free weatherization:

Central Missouri Community Action offers free weatherization for eligible households. Eligibility is based on total household income, which may not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline. Visit the website or call 881-0191.

Source: Central Missouri Community Action.

The help line rang four hours on Oct. 3 and four hours on Oct. 4 before all the month's donations were promised. For the rest of the month, callers were told to go elsewhere.

But that's nothing new.

As the city starts its annual campaign asking City Water and Light customers to make donations, its two utility funds for the needy will soon start their seventh straight year of being unable to assist most of the people who request help.

The Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services operates the two programs: Citizens Assisting Seniors and Handicapped, and Heat Energy and Light Program. The first program aids people older than 60 and adults with disabilities. The second aids families with school-age children.

The city posted a request on its website recently asking for donations for the two funds. The main push comes in a few weeks when customers will receive a pledge form with their November billing statements, utility services specialist Connie Kacprowicz said.

The average total monthly donations for the two utility assistance efforts this year through September was $5,260, said Rebecca Roesslet, who runs the programs for the Department of Public Health and Human Services. In October, there was more money, thanks to an annual allocation from the Columbia City Council. This year, the council pitched in $4,045, making October's total $8,216.

Roesslet attributed the funds' lack of money to a combination of causes.

"Rates going up, donations going down, unemployment going up — everyone's just in a hard spot," she said.

The last year in which the programs had a reserve of money that rolled over from month to month was 2006, Roesslet said. Since then, they've operated on monthly budgets.

To get a clearer picture, consider that, on average, the two programs helped 34 households per month this year through September. At the same time, because of customer nonpayment, the city has disconnected an average of 40 to 70 households per day.

Those are the disconnect numbers on weekdays when the weather is good, said Patricia Bollman, manager of utilities and billing for the city Finance Department. When the temperature drops below 32, Missouri utility companies can't turn off a household's natural gas or electrical services, according to the state's cold weather rule.

Columbia has an average of 102 days at 32 degrees or below during those months.

Taking advantage of the relatively mild autumn weather is critical for people who want to get by this winter, said Cyndy Chapman, regional director of development for the mid-Missouri Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army is one of two agencies to which the city's website still refers customers it can't help. Unfortunately, the Salvation Army's rent and utility program ran out of money early in 2011.

"If people know … ahead of time, they can make provisions to do things to help themselves," Chapman said. "Like cut down on their utility bills, cut down on their heating."

Chapman encourages people to start today to prepare for their winter utility bills.

"With the weather still nice, people can help alleviate high bills if they take action right now," she said.

Central Missouri Community Action, a social service agency, will also be helping fewer people this winter because of reduced government funding. Last year, the agency gave money for energy assistance to 4,509 households. This year, that number will be "dramatically decreased,” community services director Angela Hirsch said.

"We're going to help as many families as we can,” Hirsch said.

Central Missouri Community Action had an energy assistance budget of $1.1 million in the 2010-2011 winter season, Hirsch said. The budget for the coming winter is $562,000.

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Corey Parks October 19, 2011 | 8:35 p.m.

I wonder what the average KW usage each month is for those that request assistance.

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