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St. Helens adopts flat discount on seniors' water bills


Utility assistance program closed to new applicants

The St. Helens City Council approved a resolution Wednesday, March 5, that effectively discontinues the city’s utility assistance program for seniors, while grandfathering in customers currently receiving a discount.

Many seniors will see their subsidy reduced as a result of the change. Instead of the previous proportional program, which allowed some households to claim more than $60 off particularly large water bills, the retooled program only allows for a flat $20 to be deducted off seniors’ bills every other month.

Only customers who signed up for the discount prior to Dec. 5, 2013, will be eligible to continue receiving it.

The City Council had originally considered reworking the utility assistance program to end the age-based discount entirely. As Finance Director Jon Ellis told councilors in December, most cities in Oregon with such a program offer discounts based on ratepayers’ annual income. Ellis also noted the cost to St. Helens of maintaining its utility assistance program has outstripped the revenue the city receives in delinquent fees and fines, which are used to fund it.

Ellis presented a proposal that would extend a modest discount to St. Helens families making 30 percent or less of the average household income for Columbia County, which he said would include many seniors who have been receiving the discount based on age.

But elderly residents reacted badly to Ellis’s income-based discount idea. A public hearing on the issue in January drew a large crowd of seniors, many of whom spoke against ending the age-based discount. The public backlash prompted city councilors, led by Council President Doug Morten, to reconsider the idea.

Morten praised the city’s work in reworking the program to control costs Wednesday.

“Individuals, by and large, were glad that we took that step forward to honor our seniors that way,” Morten said.

The city’s move to a flat $20 discount means that some seniors with small water bills will actually see their discounts increase, Councilor Keith Locke pointed out.

The change in the program will not be reflected on customers’ bills until June, as the change was made after the start of the current billing cycle Feb. 15.

Whatever is left over in revenue from delinquent fees and fines will be reserved for assisting low-income ratepayers with their utility bills, under the terms of the resolution adopted Wednesday.

The way the income-based assistance will work will be set by the City Council in consultation with the nonprofit Community Action Team Inc. Locke, who also sits on the nonprofit’s board of directors, volunteered to lead that effort.