For more than a decade, the water and sewer rates of some low-income residents in The Dalles have remained frozen, making them up to 69 percent lower than the charge for other customers.
The city council has been asked by Kate Mast, finance director, to review the rate structure of the discount program that is offered to senior and disabled citizens.
The existing policy refers to 10 and 35 percent discounts in rates but, in actuality, the amounts have remained the same since the early 2000s. Therefore, instead of paying the current monthly rate of $47.88 for water, people on the program pay $22.50 or $15.48. Their cost for sewer is reduced from $43.29 per month to $16.52 or $11.18.
To qualify, participants must meet federal income and eligibility guidelines. That requires that their total household income not exceed 125 percent of the federal poverty level for the number of people in the residence.
Mast said direction was given to staff by a past council to leave the original discount rates in place, and no changes have been made since that time.
“Everyone who is on the program, no matter how long they’ve been on it, is getting that frozen rate,” she said.
If the 10 and 35 percent discounts were followed, the 205 participating households would pay $31.12 or $43.09 each month for water and either $38.96 or $23.14 for sewer, according to Mast.
She is recommending the council make the listed rate percentages accurate or change classifications for the program. Her advice is to refer to “Discount Rate A” for those falling between 51 and 100 percent of federal poverty guidelines and “Discount Rate B” for people with 50 percent or less eligibility.
“The whole reason this came up is because everything’s fragmented and I want to put it all in one piece and clarify what we are doing,” she said.
By keeping the current discount in place, she said the city will lose about $155,688 in revenue during fiscal year 2013-14, a number that will rise to $203,776 in three years.
If the program is expanded to all households within The Dalles that meet poverty guidelines, as has been suggested by some officials, she said the loss of revenue would be $382,324 by 2016-17.
Mast has also provided the council with options for 25 and 50 percent reductions, as well as 35 and 60 percent, and 45 and 70 percent.
Councilor Bill Dick, after hearing her presentation Feb. 10, said he had voted for water and sewer rate increases to pay for infrastructure improvements because there was a “safety net” in place for those who needed it.
“My vote has been made much easier by having a program to help those who can’t pay more,” he said.
Dick said rates should not be changed so much that they negate the benefit to those who most needed assistance.
Mast said there are other programs available to help people pay utility bills, although budget constraints had tightened up the assets of these agencies.
Councilor Tim McGlothlin supported having the city’s discount program limited only to senior and disabled residents.
He and the remainder of the council asked Mast to bring back a new policy for review, probably sometime in March, which will propose a new rate structure. Further discussion will be given to the issue at that time.
Under the current agreement, the city pays the Mid-Columbia Community Action Council $3 per application to administer the discount rate program. In calendar year 2013, the city paid $684 to the agency for handling 228 applications.
Mast told the council Feb. 10 that she had received indications from the other agency that the fee needed to be increased so it covered more of the approximate 40 minutes of staff time spent on each application. She said there was likely to be a request for more money in the near future.