Cleveland Utilities considering project to help thousands of needy families

Cleveland Utilities considering project to help thousands of needy families

October 2nd, 2012 by Paul Leach in News

Ken Webb

POLL: Would you mind paying more on your utility bill to help needy families?

CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Cleveland Utilities is considering a program to help the thousands of families who have problems paying for utility services.

At a recent meeting, the utility's board members gave permission for it to develop a proposal for an initiative that would be funded through spare change from participating customers.

The program, which would be a partnership with a local community service agency, takes inspiration from "roundup" programs offered by Volunteer Energy Cooperative and other utilities in the region, said Tom Wheeler, CEO and president of Cleveland Utilities. Such programs typically round up a customer's bill to the next dollar, contributing the difference between the actual bill and the next dollar to an independent body dedicated to serving the community.

The average monthly cost to a participating customer would be 50 cents, said Ken Webb, vice president of Cleveland Utilities' financial division.

"Utilities are a necessity, and we're always looking for ways we think we can help that part of the community that is having a difficult time," he said.

Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 17, Cleveland Utilities has processed 6,289 disconnect orders because of nonpayment, Webb said. Of those customers, a little more than half were able to work out some kind of payment agreement and retain services while 3,003 families actually were disconnected, records show.

For 30 years, Cleveland Utilities has maintained Project Help, a customer-funded program for helping the needy pay their energy bills. Unfortunately, said Webb, it has been losing support. Five hundred customer donors now support the program, amounting to about $800 a month. In the past, nearly 1,000 donors provided $1,300 a month, he said, and that's not enough, especially when high winter bills affect so many people.

A roundup project, however, could make a significant difference if only half of Cleveland Utilities' customers participated. Webb estimated that $100,000 could be collected annually, surpassing Project Help's annual funding tenfold.

Volunteer Energy Cooperative has had consistent funding and success with its VECustomers Share program, said Robert McCarty, communications coordinator for the utility. The program receives support from 77 percent of its customers, amounting to $30,000 in contributions each month, he said. An independent board disperses funding through grants to community organizations over a 17-county region.

Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at paul.leach.press@gmail.com.