Program aids thousands with high electric bills

Posted: Thursday, October 02, 2008

Juneau Unplugged, the city's electric-bill aid program, helped most of the low-income residents who needed it, reported those who ran the program.

"I think that's extraordinary," Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho said.

The program helped 2,199 households, 83 percent of them in the lowest income bracket.

The program was born after avalanches in mid-April took out the line supplying cheap hydroelectricity and forced the city to burn costly diesel instead. The Juneau Assembly set aside $3 million to help residents and businesses pay electric bills that were set to more than quadruple.

The final cost was far less: $522,000, including $39,000 in administration costs.

The city paid 70 percent of the rate hike for households at twice the federal poverty-line income, or $53,300 for a family of four, and a lesser proportion for those with incomes up to three times the poverty line. Those who applied but didn't qualify were given an extra look. Fourteen applications were denied.

The local nonprofit United Way contracted with Catholic Community Services, which hired former city manager Kevin Ritchie to oversee the program.

In May, Ritchie used census numbers to estimate 6,000 households would be eligible, nearly half the city. Helping that many could cost $2.38 million, he told city management.

As it turned out, far fewer of the higher-income households applied than expected - about 375, according to Ritchie.

Then again, the crisis didn't turn out to be as much of a crisis as originally expected.

Soon after the avalanches, Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. estimated ratepayers would have to shoulder an extra $25 million for the diesel. The utility revised that cost to $18 million once people started conserving energy, and the actual cost was just under $9 million.

Two factors reduced the cost. First, AEL&P restored hydro-fueled electricity in one month instead of three. Second, people conserved electricity. By the last week on diesel, the city load was 41 percent lower than the same week the year before.

Census numbers don't say how many low-income people live in Juneau, nor how many have utility accounts. That made estimating the amount of need difficult, Ritchie said. But at 2.5 people per household, he estimated the program helped about 5,500 people.

"Arguably, that's most of the people who needed it," he said.

Juneau Unplugged advertised the program all over town with various media. AEL&P sent notices out with the high bills.

Many who participated had already been screened and approved for other aid programs. They were easier to find with the help of state and tribal networks, such as the Tlingit and Haida Regional Council or the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., said Rosemary Hagevig, Catholic Community Services executive director.

"We couldn't have done it alone," Hagevig said.

"Many people wonder what we do," said Brenda Hewitt, executive director of United Way, of all the agency-business coordination. "This is it in a nutshell."

Botelho noted the program didn't reach everyone. Some people were loath to offer their private financial information to the agencies, he said.

But overall, he said most people who needed help got it, and he praised the social services and other agencies that worked on the program.

"I think Juneau is very fortunate to be in the position that we have that kind of leadership, that kind of administrative structure," Botelho said. "I think the crisis proved their mettle."

Ritchie agreed.

"I said, 'We need computers,'" he said. "We had computers within the day."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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