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Lawrence City Commission to consider utility rate increases and weigh options to expand assistance programs

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Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday will consider water, sewer, solid waste and stormwater rate increases, and assess possible ways to expand a program to help financially stressed residents pay their bills. 

During their Aug. 9 meeting, commissioners requested that staff try to reduce prospective utility rate hikes

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The suggested rate increase for 2023 has been unaltered. That means the average resident’s monthly water bill will increase to $122 from $115, if commissioners approve. But the new proposed increases for 2024 and 2025 are 10.25% and 11%, respectively, representing a slightly smaller increase than the ones that were originally proposed — 10.5% and 12%. 

Commissioners will discuss the options and obstacles attached to expanding its utility assistance program in light of probable utility rate increases.

The city’s current “Low-Income Elderly Rate” program helps people ages 60 and older who are impoverished. To qualify, an older individual must make less than $14,168 from all income sources, or those with head-of-household status must have total household incomes of no more than $19,162, according to a city staff memo to the commission. 

Those who meet the criteria receive 65% off their city utility bills. Eligibility is reviewed each year, and all accounts must reapply each year. There are currently 75 people who qualify for the program, costing $60,000 annually.

City staff members have identified two ways to help vulnerable people with impending utility rate hikes: either use American Rescue Plan Act (federal COVID-19 relief) funds, or expand the current assistance program to include more people. 

Staff members considered the number of Lawrence residents who qualify for the state’s Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP) as a way to determine how much an assistance expansion for utility services could cost the city, according to a memo to the commission.

Using data from the Kansas Department for Children and Families, city staff project that approximately 700 households currently qualify for LIEAP. 

Helping the same number of households with utility coverage would cost $676,716, according to the city’s memo. City officials included $67,500 annually for additional staffing to oversee the program.

Numbers on Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance funds also provide some insight on the number of households that could seek financial respite if the city expands its utility assistance program. KERA paid $757,261 across 843 Lawrence utility accounts since it launched in March 2021 through Aug. 31, 2022. That federally funded program is designed to provide short-term relief to those financially affected by the pandemic. 

ARPA funds are also temporary, and the memo states that it is unclear whether they’re available for utility assistance and that city staff do not have the capacity to develop or administer a program. 

Expansion of the current utility assistance program would need to be funded by the city’s general fund, but that would be an unbudgeted expense, according to the memo. 

“Staff is seeking direction from the City Commission on whether expansion of these programs should be a new priority focus, and if so how the Commission would like to see an expanded program policy developed and funded,” the memo states. 

The Lawrence City Commission will meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20 at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. See the full agenda at this link. Meetings are also livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel. Commissioners will also consider changes to public comment procedures.

The commission accepts public comment in writing — comments must be received by noon the day of the meeting at ccagendas@lawrenceks.org — and during meetings in person and virtually. Register to join the Zoom meeting at this link.

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Chansi Long (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, has a bachelor of science in mass media from Baker University and a master’s in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. She’s been published in the Washington Post, River Teeth and Brevity. She was honored to be named Kansas Writer of the Year by the Winfield Arts and Humanities Council in 2016 for her essay “Lovesick.”

Read more of her work for the Times here.

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