City Council hears possible changes to utility assistance programs

Monday, December 5, 2011 | 9:53 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — People who need help paying their utility bills rely on a pair of city programs that could soon be changed.

Before the Monday night City Council meeting, Health Department Director Stephanie Browning outlined changes to two utility assistance programs, which could take effect in January. More substantial changes could be recommended in the next few months.

Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe requested that the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services find ways to improve the two programs.

Citizens Assisting Seniors and Handicapped aids people older than 60 and adults with disabilities. Heat Energy and Light Program helps families with school-age children. Applicants for either program can receive up to $200 to offset utility costs, according to a previous Missourian report. The department runs both programs.

Improvements to the application process would include the following, Browning, the department director, said:

  • People who received help would be chosen randomly, rather than in the order in which they applied.
  • People would be able to apply by mail, fax, electronically or in person. Now, people must apply in person.
  • People would not have to reapply every month. Their applications would stay on file for a year.

Browning said the random-selection process has worked for the department's dental assistance program for the past year.

The Health Department will look to other communities as models and recommend additional changes to the programs in a few months. These proposals would try to generate additional revenue for the programs, Browning said, which help about 12 percent of people who apply every month.

She said donations to the two programs have decreased 30 percent over the past 10 years.

Mayor Bob McDavid asked why donations had declined even though Columbia's population has increased during the same time.

Browning responded that the marketing for the program might need to be "more purposeful." She also mentioned changing the program names.

McDavid then said the United Way has successfully met higher annual donation goals and that the department might look at a better way to get the word out.

The programs currently advertise in the Columbia Daily Tribune.

After the presentation, Hoppe explained why she was interested in the issue.

"I became aware that someone who's been active and very generous with her time in the community had her utility bills cut off more than one time," she said.

Hoppe learned that many people were having their utilities cut off because they couldn't pay their bills.

She pointed out that she didn't want just to "throw money" at the problem, but was looking for other solutions, including making sure apartments were more energy efficient.

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