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Utilities Customer Assistance Program to replace Good Neighbor initiative

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By Sean Kennedy

Brighton city council passed an ordinance at its April 2 meeting repealing the utility department’s Good Neighbor Program and replacing it with the Utilities Customer Assistance Program, starting in June.

So, what’s the difference to consumers?

The Good Neighbor program was originally introduced in 2014 as a means to help low-income Brighton residents pay their utility bills with help from the community. Under the program, residents could opt-in to the program with the utility department, which rounded up their bills. The pilot program kicked off in 2014 with $25,000 in funding from the city’s general fund.

However, city officials said, the Good Neighbor program has run on a funding deficit since then, as it doesn’t receive enough in monthly round-up donations and isn’t allowed to accept miscellaneous donations outside the round-up. Some council members pointed out that this could be due to a lack of public awareness. Councilwoman Mary Ellen Pollack, who noted that she has an accountant handle her bills, said she hadn’t heard of the program and didn’t know the round-up donation option was available on her bill. City staff noted that due to formatting changes, the opt-in box hasn’t appeared on bills in at least a year and that Good Neighbors participants have had to do so in person or over the phone with city staff. They said the program takes in an average of about $2,000 in donations per month but spends triple in reducing the bills of low-income customers.

Enter the Utilities Customer Assistance Program.

Under the new program, utility customers in need of assistance will contact Almost Home, a local organization at 231 N. Main Street that has traditionally provided housing and utility assistance to residents. Almost Home will conduct a brief case evaluation and provide customers with a voucher that can be returned to the city’s utilities customer service department to credit their utilities accounts. Customers will be able to get up to $300 in voucher assistance annually.

For citizens interested in helping their neighbors, the old “round-up” options will return to utility bills, and a dedicated fund for the CAP program will be created to accept donations outside of the round-up option.

According to city officials, residential customers of any income are eligible for the new program, be they an individual or head of a family – as long as they can provide proof of residency. Businesses and other nonresidential entities will not be eligible for the program.

“We’re really excited about this,” Shawna Miller, executive director of Almost Home said. “We already get a lot of calls about this… it’s a really scary thing for people because there aren’t a lot of agencies that help with this.”

Miller, who estimated that Almost Home gets about 60 calls per week about utility assistance, 10 or so of which pertain to water bills, said that the new program has been in the works since city officials reached out last year about a potential partnership.

“We modeled (CAP) after how we already do our utilities assistance, except that the assistance can come multiple times over the year,” Miller said. Almost Home will receive some reimbursement from the city as compensation for administrative costs under the new program. Councilman Greg Mills called for the program, whose first year will be funded out of the city’s general fund, to be evaluated after a year to address any potential issues. The ordinance establishing the new program passed unanimously.

“This water program is going to be just a small part of our operations,” Miller said, “But if this partnership goes as well as we anticipate, we can be a model for other cities.”