Juneau residents slow to seek electricity aid

Posted: Thursday, June 05, 2008

A shortened repair schedule and a lower-than-expected number of aid applicants means Juneau will likely be getting back much of the money earmarked to help residents and businesses pay high electric bills, according to a city official.

City Manager Rod Swope said it was too early to say how much of the $3 million the city originally had set aside for grants to small businesses and loans to individuals would be returned. But the shortened repair schedule on the Snettisham transmission line meant that "we'll get a lot more than what we anticipated back," Swope said.

As of Monday, no businesses had asked for loans to help with electric bills or related expenses and about 700 residents had applied for grants to help cover part of their electric rate surcharges, according to officials at the various agencies tasked with offering energy relief.

"I kind of expected we would have had a higher level of participation," Swope said.

Officials at the nonprofits tasked with distributing the city's aid said they are still "open for business," and expect more requests for help to come in as more bills with higher electric rates are sent out and the full economic impact of the city's energy crisis is felt.

Two weeks ago, Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. began mailing out electric bills with rates more than four times higher than normal. So far, about half of its customers, mostly residential, have received the higher bills, according to Gayle Wood, AEL&P's director of consumer affairs.

The higher rates stemmed from April avalanches that damaged the transmission line between the Snettisham hydroelectric project and town that left Juneau using expensive diesel fuel to generate most of its power.

To cope with the higher rates, the Juneau Assembly allocated about $3 million to the local nonprofits to distribute grants and loans to lower income residents and needy businesses. The federal Small Business Administration also made $1.5 million available to businesses at the request of Gov. Sarah Palin.

Swope later expanded the income eligibility requirements for city aid, which grew the number of households eligible from an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 - or about half the city's households.

But those decisions were made when repairs were expected to take much of the summer and leave electric customers with three month's worth of high electric bills.

Instead, the lines were fixed earlier this week, and electric customers are expected to face only one significantly higher monthly bill.

"The good news is that people are able to deal with this on their own," said Brian Holst, executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council. The city tasked the JEDC with distributing half a million dollars to needy businesses.

Holst said AEL&P's levelized payment plans, which allow customers to spread out one high monthly bill, may be one reason why businesses haven't turned to city loans for help.

The SBA has handed out 21 applications since the avalanches, according to agency spokeswoman Charmagne Husmann, but had yet to receive any requests for aid.

Kevin Ritchie, who runs the city and nonprofits' efforts to help residential electric customers, said he expects more applications to roll in as more customers get their bills and find out about the city aid. He said he hasn't yet received applications from some of the bigger low-income housing places in town yet, but expects their requests shortly.

Ritchie said it was too early to tell what the final number of residential customers applying for city aid would be, but it was clear that the numbers would be lower than initially expected.

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or e-mail alan.suderman@juneauempire.com.

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