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Photo by G & A Sattler.

Photo by G & A Sattler.


Applicant Says Seattle Utility Discount Program Offers No Relief This Winter

Amy Radil

Seattle's Utility Discount Program offers eligible residents half off of both their City Light and Seattle Public Utility bills. They just have to meet the program's income guidelines. But the program has been plagued with high staff turnover and slow response times. Applicants say that means they can't get enrolled during the coldest time of year. KUOW's Amy Radil reports.


Krista Larsen says she and her husband are used to living like graduate students, meaning without much money. She's a web content developer and her husband is a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington. And she just had a baby, so her work hours are reduced. Their current income is low enough that they qualified for subsidized childcare.

Larsen: "That kind of got me thinking to look into other low–income programs because I wouldn't have considered myself low income. So then in the mail I got the flyer from Seattle City Light and thought I should give it a try."

Larsen had to pull together three months worth of pay stubs and rent receipts as well as copies of their lease and drivers' licenses. Larsen submitted her application to the Utility Discount Program before Thanksgiving, and a month later called to check back.

Larsen: "They told me that it would be at least three to four months before my application would be reviewed because there was such a backlog due to hard economic times, and it being winter so everybody's looking for assistance for their high energy bills."

Larsen says she was crestfallen to learn that they can't expect any relief until the spring, especially because their heat is all electric. She estimates that the discount could be worth $100 a month for them. She says she was also surprised because the city seemed to be working so hard to advertise the program.

Larsen: "It was really appalling to me. And like I said I've never considered myself to be that low income, it got me thinking about what it would be like if I were seriously low income and what it would be like to have to wait three to four months to get assistance on a bill. It just seemed really wrong that the city would do this."

City officials say that the Utility Discount Program is in a major state of flux and there's a lot of staff turnover right now. But they say delays for enrollment should not be as extensive as what Larsen was told on the phone.

Kelly Guy has been supervising the program within the city's Human Services Department for the last six months. She says there's currently no backlog in applications.

Guy: "There were three leadership changes within one year, with a lack of staff, and there was a backlog of over 2,200 applications which are now to zero."

Guy says they're now looking at applications from around the time Larsen applied. But Larsen says she has yet to hear back from the program. The program has been under pressure to improve its response times for months. A consultant's report last spring found that the program typically takes two to four months to review an application, where one to two months should be the goal.

Meanwhile the state auditor found that 2,800 accounts had not renewed their eligibility on time, and might therefore be ineligible for their discounts.

But the program's attempts to re–enroll all these customers, many of them senior citizens, has not always gone smoothly either. Seattle resident Ethel Palmer is 85. She says she and her 91–year–old husband were recently dropped from the program because the city found their application incomplete.

Palmer: "I got my light bill a couple weeks ago or whatever it was and noticed it's awfully high. I called them up and they said, 'You're no longer in the program.' I said, 'Can you tell me why?' She says, 'You didn't fill out the papers.' I said, 'Well I did.'"

Palmer says she's since sent in proof of I.D. and even went downtown herself to resubmit all the paperwork. But city official say she still needs to submit more financial forms.

Palmer: "I went downtown, I went to the bank and now I have to go to the credit union."

City manager Kelly Guy says when it's time to re–enroll, clients are sent a notice that gives them seven to 10 days to complete the process before they're dropped. But she says problems like Palmer's aren't uncommon, and they're looking at extending that deadline.

Guy: "We're finding out with a lot of the shut–in or people who have been hospitalized, we need to look at — especially for the renewal group of senior citizens — looking at that deadline, and are we giving enough time for this group given some of their health needs and concerns, or should we make their time a little longer?"

But Guy worries that people might forget to reapply if they're given a longer deadline. Snohomish County's Public Utility District has a similar program for low–income people and seniors to get utility discounts. Under that program, seniors typically don't have to reapply since their incomes are unlikely to change. And the Snohomish PUD enrollment process is markedly different from Seattle's. They turn applications around by the next billing cycle, within 60 days. And their discount is retroactive to the date the complete application was received. So qualified applicants there know they will get relief from the harsh electric bills of winter.

I'm Amy Radil, KUOW News.

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