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Report: Portland can increase utility discounts

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Portland has fallen short of its longstanding goal of providing utility relief to low-income households, but could more than double the number of recipients with a concentrated effort and help even more people with a long range effort.

Those are among the findings of work group appointed in January to review the city's existing water and sewer discount program and recommend ways to expand it. It was appointed by Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services, which operates the city's sewer system and stormwater management program.

The work group released its report Wednesday. Major findings include:

• The City Council set a goal of providing relief to 10,000 households in 1995 but the current program only reaches around 8,000.

• City officials have not yet found a way to extend the relief to an additional 40,000 low-income households who rent apartments. The biggest obstacle is the lack of water meters in each apartment.

• The city could extend the relief to an additional 13,000 renters who live in subsidized housing by working with the agencies that manage the units.

• The city could make even more low-income residents of single-family homes aware of the discount program by working with low-income service providers. Earlier this year, the Water Bureau formed a partnership with Home Forward, a housing agency serving governments in Multnomah County, and has already reached out to 300 families that qualify for the discount.

• If the city increases the number of households receiving utility discounts, it must figure out how to pay for them. Options include reducing the amount of the discounts, increase utility rates to pay of the increase, or paying for the increase with General Fund dollars.

"This work group has identified promising paths that could allow the City to more than double the 8,000 residents receiving discounts. But hurdles remain in the form of resolving complications and related administrative costs created by federal rules and variations in apartments, tenant family size, income criteria and water use," reads the report, titled, "Expanding City Utility Discounts in Portland."

You can read the report here.

"I appreciate the thoughtful recommendations from the community work group that I appointed in January. I have forwarded the report to the new Portland Utility Board for review. I look forward to working with my bureaus and colleagues to expand the low-income discount program to more eligible families and older adults," Fish said after the report was released.

The Low-Income Utility Assistance Program currently determines eligibility for residents in housing units that have water meters by contracting with Multnomah County to verify applicants’ income. Current income guidelines are based on 60 percent of the statewide median family income (MFI) — about $28,000 for a family of two or $41,000 for a family of four. Customers who qualify receive a discount equal to about half the total bill of a typical user. This amounts to a quarterly discount of $130, or $520 per year.

The task force was composed of: JoAnn Herrigal, Elders in Action; Sean Hubert, Central City Concern; Deborah Imse, Multi-Family Northwest; Anneliese Koehler, Oregon Food Bank; Tom Lewis, East Portland Neighbors; Mary Li, Multnomah County Department of Human Services; Molly Rogers, Home Forward; Jill Smith Home Forward; Steve Weiss, community member/recipient of the bill discount. Janice Thompson of the Citizens’ Utility Board of Oregon was an observer at several meetings.