City manager says relief is topped out

Posted: Tuesday, May 27, 2008

City Manager Rod Swope said recent enhancements to the residential portion of a $3 million city-funded energy assistance program are as far as he is willing to go for the moment.

"We're not expanding it beyond this," he said.

United Way of Southeast Alaska announced Thursday an increase in the eligibility pool for access to several million dollars, already appropriated by the Juneau Assembly, to aid "those at most risk" of financial ruin in the face of short-term skyrocketing electricity rates.

They expect nearly 50 percent of the city to apply.

Juneau Unplugged was originally open only to homes receiving federal assistance. It offered to provide grants equal to 70 percent of the rate hike. Now, homes earning as much as 300 percent of the federal poverty guideline, or $79,500 for a family of four, are eligible to receive grants equal to 30 percent of their price hike.

The change dedicates $879,000 additional dollars to residential relief. Swope said $1 million has been released so far, $500,000 to residential grants, $500,000 to interest-bearing business loans doled out through the Juneau Economic Development Council.

Swope said no cuts were made to the city-funded small business loan program to facilitate the expansion of the residential grant plan.

Brian Holst, director of the JEDC, said the nonprofit would be able to operate its program on the money already allocated. JEDC can do this because Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. now offers levelized payment plans for small businesses, and the Small Business Administration approved an Economic Injury Disaster Loan declaration, Holst said.

Kevin Ritchie, Juneau Unplugged program director, has promised every qualified resident in the city who needs help paying the 447 percent electricity cost increase will get it. He expects 6,000 households across the city to get a share, with the most going to the poorest.

Ritchie sent a recommendation and cost estimate to Swope on Thursday, in which he estimated the enhanced program would cost $2.38 million if numbers from the original outreach projection double as expected. Swope made the decision, Ritchie said.

Estimates were based on available numbers, but Ritchie said "good numbers" on the breakdown of income and households were not available locally. Assuming that everyone eligible will apply, Ritchie set the numbers on the high estimate.

"It could be more money than we think," Ritchie said. "There could be variables that no one knows about."

Last week, Assembly member Jonathan Anderson tried to crack open the city's sales tax reserve fund to provide a grant program to small businesses that draw a lot of electricity to operate and can't match the huge conservation efforts made elsewhere. For now, the city's business aid program provides loans.

"I'm satisfied with aid to individuals, less with help to small business," Anderson said.

Saying the city itself had plenty of money, Anderson motioned to take $4.8 million from the sales tax reserve.

"If they're in need and we have the money to use, I'm in support of looking at it," Anderson said. "It's not the city in crisis; it's the local community."

Anderson asked the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and the JEDC to report their needs, if any, during Wednesday's Assembly Finance Committee meeting.

• Contact reporter Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or e-mail

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