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Subsidy would be a flat $20 every two months under new proposal

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Columbia City Mayor Cheryl Young speaks to the St. Helens City Council at the council's work session Wednesday, Feb. 19. Young, who manages the St. Helens Senior Center, told councilors that senior citizens are unhappy about the prospect of giving up an automatic discount on their water bills many of them have been receiving since they turned 65.The St. Helens City Council backed away from a proposal made last year to abandon the city’s subsidy of senior citizens’ water bills in favor of an income-based assistance program, agreeing Wednesday, Feb. 19, to preserve a discount for seniors.

The proposal offered by St. Helens Finance Director Jon Ellis would change the age-based discount to provide $20 off seniors’ water bills, rather than the sliding discount based on water usage now.

Ellis put forward a proposal last year he said would solve St. Helens’ problems with funding the utility assistance program — it currently costs $160,000 per year, well above the $95,000 typically collected in delinquent fines and fees each year, he said — while bringing the city in line with most other Oregon municipalities that offer assistance for some ratepayers’ water bills. Few other cities in the state, he said, maintain a utility assistance program exclusively for seniors.

But St. Helens’ elderly were outraged by Ellis’ suggestion of switching to an income-based program to provide discounts for households earning less than 30 percent of Columbia County’s median income. Seniors flooded the council chambers in St. Helens City Hall for a public hearing on the proposal Jan. 15. Testimony at that hearing was overwhelmingly against the idea.

“It was a very interactive public forum,” Ellis said Wednesday. “Believe it or not, I did appreciate it.”

After the Jan. 15 meeting, Ellis said, he began working on a range of alternative proposals. His suggestion of switching to a $20 flat rate on each water bill while keeping seniors in the assistance program appeared to resonate with the City Council.

“I really favor a flat rate, and I really appreciate our financial director going to the due diligence and hard work of crunching all of these things,” said Council President Doug Morten, who described himself as “an advocate for the seniors.”

The $20 discount option would cost St. Helens $84,000, less than the $95,000 in fees it uses to cover the program’s cost, according to Ellis. That would leave $11,000 left over, which Ellis suggested could be set aside and distributed by the nonprofit Community Action Team Inc. as “emergency assistance” for low-income households.

Morten also said he would like to see the assistance program remain closed, as it has been since early December, to new applications — meaning the current group of seniors receiving discounts cannot expand. He also said he favored having CAT distribute the remaining cash to low-income ratepayers.

Mayor Randy Peterson agreed. He said that by closing off the assistance program to new applicants, “As time goes on, that $11,000 [for low-income households] will increase through attrition.”

Although there appeared to be agreement in principle supporting the $20 discount option at the City Council work session Wednesday, the council did not hold a formal vote. Ellis said city staff and councilors still have time before the April 15 billing date to get an ordinance in place outlining the new program parameters.

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