Tacoma Public Utilities has programs to assist low-income customers with paying their bills. They are underutilized, as many customers are not aware of them. As the cost of living continues to increase, TPU is stepping up efforts to get the word out about such help. Francine Artis, customer services assistant manager with TPU, gave an update to Tacoma City Council on June 26.
TPU began offering a discount on electricity in 1983. In 2006 assistance for water and environmental services bills were added. The assistance can come from one of two programs, both for households at 150 percent of the federal poverty guideline. Discount Rate Program is for customers 62 or older, or who received income for a disability. It has a 30 percent discount for all services. Bill Credit Assistance Plan has monthly credits based on full, on-time payments. The maximum annual amount is currently $468. TPU is proposing to increase this to $564. A customer can only be enrolled in one of these programs.
Currently, 72 percent of those eligible for Discount Rate Program are enrolled. Participation is much lower for Bill Credit Assistance Plan. For example, it estimated that 47,000 households are eligible for help with power bills. Only 1,925 households received it in 2017.
Artis noted with the rising cost of living, some poor people have to juggle paying rent, utilities and other bills. “We know rent increases have been substantial in this area.”
Earlier this year TPU allocated more resources to Artis so she can focus on getting the word out about assistance programs. She and other staff have reached out to various non-profit organizations. They have visited 60 apartment complexes with mostly low-income renters. Some have been public housing projects. This outreach has included meetings on site and direct mail. They have also brought the message to senior citizen activity centers. Artis noted the need to get information out to people with mental challenges, such as dementia.
TPU is producing posters and brochures. Artis said some have been printed in Spanish, with other languages being considered. She said TPU is “truly dedicated to find solutions for customers.”
TPU wants to use schools to get information out, perhaps with information tables at back-to-school nights. Unemployment offices are another source, as is healthcare providers such as MultiCare and CHI Franciscan.
Another program that will begin soon is a financial education credit, offered as part of a class through Tacoma Goodwill. It will cover topics such as banking basics, insurance and money management. TPU customers who complete the course can receive a credit of up to $160 on their bill.