Proposal for income-based approach draws scorn, anger, disbelief

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Lynne Lenormand of St. Helens cries as she testifies in opposition to a proposal that would change St. Helens' utility assistance program from a discount for senior citizens to provide financial help for extremely low-income households.A predominantly elderly audience packed the council chambers of St. Helens City Hall on the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 15, to voice their displeasure with a city proposal that would replace the age-based program that provides seniors with a discount on their water bills with a program that would offer financial support based on household income.

More than a dozen people, most of them senior citizens, addressed the St. Helens City Council and Finance Director Jon Ellis regarding the latter’s proposal to provide up to $17.50 every two months in assistance for households making 30 percent or less of Columbia County’s median income, replacing the current system under which residents 65 and older can receive a discount on their bills every other month.

Most of those who testified were adamantly opposed to the proposed change.

“You’re raising the rates anyway on everybody,” Nancy Whitney of St. Helens told the council, referring to the 4.5 percent increase in water, sewer and stormwater rates it approved last month. “So the seniors are going to take a double whammy on that. They’re going to lose their discount, and they’re going to get a raise.”

Some, like former Councilor Cheryl Breslin, expressed anger that seniors may no longer receive discounts from the city.

“It’s really a matter of respect,” Breslin said. “We have given this discount for a whole lot of years, and I don’t think it should be discontinued.”

Breslin was one of several seniors speaking at the meeting who also criticized the idea of providing assistance to ratepayers based on their income. She suggested that some people are willfully unemployed and live off government benefits, and they will also receive discounts on their utility bills under Ellis’ proposal.

“They don’t have to work, because the government pays for them,” Pat Erkenbeck agreed.

One elderly woman cried as she described her financial troubles living on a fixed income. She said the state may take away half of her house.

Through tears, Lynne Lenormand told the councilors, “We have worked hard, and now, for what little bit of chance we have, you guys are going to take it away.”

Lenormand and many others who testified expressed dismay at the idea of having to present proof of their income to the city in order to qualify for an income-based discount.

“What I make, or I should say, what my husband makes, is our business, not yours,” Rose Shafer told the councilors. “And I don’t want nobody delving into my income tax. Write me a letter and submit it to me, and I’ll take it into advisement — but nothing ‘til then.”

Only two of the people who testified Wednesday spoke in favor of the income-based proposal.

William Allen said he knows seniors who think of the discount as a “monthly gift” from the city, but do not need the assistance.

“I’ll be 65 next year, so I’m shooting myself in the foot,” Allen joked. He said, “The population in this city is only getting older, so it’s going to grow and it’s going to grow and it’s going to grow. And it’s going to become totally unsustainable, and we’re all going to be punished.”

Ellis, who spoke at the start of the public forum and at several points throughout to respond to questions, said the cost of the current age-based assistance program exceeded the budget of $100,000 or so it receives from utility “fines and forfeitures” by $60,000 last year. That means rates have to be increased to subsidize the senior discount, he said.

“The goal is to hold the ratepayers harmless,” Ellis said.

Ellis has recommended that the City Council adopt a plan that would provide about $75,000 in assistance to households making 30 percent or less the county median income, a group identified as “extremely low income,” for up to 25 percent of fixed water, sewer and stormwater rate fees. Another $25,000 would be set aside for Community Action Team Inc., a St. Helens-based nonprofit corporation, to distribute to households on a one-time basis as “emergency assistance.”

An estimated 715 households would be eligible for income-based assistance, including about 300 seniors, according to Ellis. Right now, 711 receive assistance under the age-based program, he said.

The council was divided after the public forum, with Council President Doug Morten suggesting that the city discontinue its utility assistance program altogether while grandfathering in seniors who have been receiving a discount under the current program, and Councilors Susan Conn and Ginny Carlson defending the merits of an income-based approach and agreeing with Ellis that the age-based program is not financially sustainable.

Referring to the upcoming City Council elections this year, Councilor Keith Locke joked at one point, “I kind of like the idea of having three new people over here after the elections.”

Mayor Randy Peterson eventually ended the discussion by suggesting the council return to the topic at a future date.

“We need to take a little more time before we decide how we do it,” said Peterson.

At Morten’s suggestion, the council will likely take up the subject of its utility assistance program again at a work session next month.

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