Portland needs to do more to provide utility discounts to low-income households, according to an audit released Wednesday by the City Auditors Office.
The audit is titled "Utility Payment Assistance: Program improvements would enable city to assist more customers." It says the Portland Water Bureau, which administers the combined water and sewer billing program, has not done nearly enough to identify those customers who need a discount and provide it to them.
The audit notes that the City Council approved a low-income discount program in 1995 and set a goal to enroll 10,000 customers, but that goal has never been reached.
Those most in need include low-income households in multifamily buildings that do not have individual water meters for each unit, the audit says. The bureau currently has no way to identify which of them meet income requirements to receive the discounts authorized by the council and provide them.
"The city has studied how to offer discounts to those who live in apartments and pay for some utilities, including water, as part of their rent rather than directly to the Water Bureau, but solutions have been elusive," the audit says.
The audit recommends focusing outreach for payment assistance on customers most likely to be eligible and in need, and ensuring that general information about payment assistance is easy to find and understand.
Paying for additional discounts is a problem not addressed in the audit. To maintain existing services, water and sewer rates would have to be raised to offset the lost revenue from discounting more bills. According to the audit, the median quarterly bill is $300 in the current fiscal year.
In a response letter, Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the water and sewer bureaus, praised auditors and said he has directed the bureaus to implement their recommendations.
"The percentage of Portlanders living below the poverty level is growing, and we are experiencing a community housing emergency. It is time for action," Fish wrote.
You can read the audit at tinyurl.com/yb86hkyg.