The Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday gave a nod of approval to a program that will allow residents to donate to a utility assistance program to help others who can’t pay their bills.
The program will be administered by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, which was the only group to respond to a city request for proposals, for $250 per application that gets approved by the city. The city already has a special rate for residents ages 60 and up who earn 110% of the federal poverty level or less, but this program will expand assistance to other customers with low incomes.
The per-application cost to the city — which would come from the general fund rather than from the pool of donations, according to Kristy Webb, utility billing manager — is roughly equivalent to two or three months’ worth of the average household’s city utility bills, which include water, sewer, stormwater and solid waste and recycling.
Webb told the commission that some Lawrence folks have been unable to pay their bills for months, and that has led to some debts in the range of $2,000. Currently, the city’s 90-day delinquency chart shows that 1,710 customers owe more than $900,000 on overdue bills.
Webb said the city has asked Catholic Charities to evaluate applicants for this program using the same parameters the organization uses to decide other services. Commissioner Lisa Larsen said she would be interested in learning more about that.
Mayor Brad Finkeldei asked Webb what would happen if the program becomes so “wildly successful” that there are many approved applications, and therefore the $250 per application fee becomes excessive. He asked if staff had considered setting a maximum amount for the contract. Webb said that had come up, but staff thought it would take two or three years to grow the program. She said it’s not too late to add a cap to the contract that’s set to begin Jan. 1, 2022, though, if the commission would be more comfortable with that.
Webb said the anticipated fiscal impact to the city of $10,000 would cover 40 approved applications. If there were substantially more applications than that, Webb said she might have to come back to the commission to ask for additional funding. She said that since the city has no idea how much money it will receive in donations, 40 seemed like a good number to start with.
Commissioner Jennifer Ananda said she has been advocating for this program for a while, and she’s excited about the momentum.
Commissioners unanimously approved launching the program, and Webb said it would take six to eight weeks or so to start giving residents the option to sign up to make donations, which would then show up as a line item on their bills.
Webb said she will come back to the commission with more information about Catholic Charities’ criteria for applicants, and about possible limits to the contract.
Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-422-6363. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.