PUD’s Neighbor to Neighbor Program Needs a Hand

Energy Assistance Need Has Climbed, While Other Sources of Help Have Declined

Hands Together
Faced with soaring need and declining federal energy assistance, Northern Wasco County People’s Utility District is asking its customers to contribute to the Neighbor to Neighbor program, which offers one-time help with power bills. The PUD matches Neighbor to Neighbor contributions. Visit the Free images website

At the same time that the Columbia Gorge has been experiencing the lowest unemployment rates in decades, the need for helping programs like Northern Wasco County PUD’s Neighbor to Neighbor program has been growing.

“There definitely has been an increase,” says Lili Narciso-Garcia, Lead Customer Service Representative at the PUD. “It feels like people have encountered harder times recently—in the last couple of years.”

Lili says more people are falling behind.

“There’s not enough to pay rent, utilities, bills, daycare,” she says. “And we’re seeing some people we’ve never seen on the list for disconnect. People are calling us that have never had problems paying their bills before.”

At the same time, contributions to the PUD’s Neighbor to Neighbor program have slipped over the past couple of years.

Neighbor to Neighbor uses tax-deductible contributions from PUD customers, matched by the utility, to help people with limited income address shortfalls in paying their power bills. The money may help pay a security deposit, bring current a past-due bill to avoid disconnection, or get the power turned back on after it has been disconnected.

Customers can qualify to receive up to $125 in 12 months. Eligibility is based on federally defined poverty levels, which are verified by the Mid-Columbia Community Action Council’s Community Action Partnership.

After growing to around $10,000 a year in 2015, the fund declined to below $9,000 in 2016-2017. And while the need has always exceeded availability, when Community Action reported to the PUD Board of Directors on March 6, the number of PUD customers on the waiting list for help had soared to 110. Community Action administers the helping program for the PUD. Customers who are facing a potential disconnect may be referred to Community Action for energy assistance.

Often, the need for power bill assistance can be a sign of deeper financial troubles, which are revealed during the Community Action intake process. “We end up finding out that there are a lot of issues behind the electric bill,” says Francisco Garcia, Energy Coordinator for Community Action; “hunger, house rental, a car that’s broken down.”

Often an inciting event starts a downward spiral — a broken car keeps someone from getting to work, or a health problem cuts income while causing the bills to pile up.

“We meet people at their most vulnerable stage,” Francisco says.

At the same time the demand is climbing, and funding for LIHEAP, the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program has been cut by more than half. During the era of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, Community Action received more than $800,000 for energy assistance for its three-county service area. Today that figure is below $400,000.

The PUD has already made some changes designed to help those in need.

“We did extend to year-round our customer rates for people who are disabled or senior citizens,” says Harvey Hall, PUD Director of Finance and Enterprise Risk Management. These rates are somewhat lower than the standard rate paid by most customers. “But those aren’t the ones coming in for assistance.”

PUD staff has started looking at ways to reinvigorate the Neighbor to Neighbor program. One idea discussed during Community Action’s visit was a “round-up” program, where customers could choose to round up their power bill to the next dollar. The cents collected would go toward Neighbor to Neighbor.

“It doesn’t sound like much, but the PUD’s got 10,000 customers,” Francisco says. “If everyone contributed just a quarter, that would be $2,000 a month. I like to call it Quartermania!”

The PUD also plans to more actively promote Neighbor to Neighbor.

“Because there is a huge need and the board is sympathetic,” Harvey says.

Some plans are already in the works. “In April, for the Cherry Festival, we will have a little booth at the Civic Auditorium, where they have the home show,” Lili says. “We will try to advertise Neighbor to Neighbor and get people to donate. We’ll also have a raffle and all the proceeds will go to the Neighbor to Neighbor fund. We’re really trying to figure out ways to increase the intake of money.”

Community Action is also planning a fundraiser. In years past, the agency has done an annual barbecue and invited the public. This year, on Friday, May 18, that event will be expanded to a block party fundraiser. They will close off Fourth Street between Washington and Federal Streets for the event, which will feature food, music, and a raffle for prizes. Francisco will be talking to local businesses about contributions to the event.

“I want that money raised to come back to our clients,” he says. The money earned will go into a fund that is used for client needs when no other resources are available.

You Can Help Your Neighbors

Northern Wasco County PUD’s Neighbor to Neighbor program
is funded through tax-deductible donations from PUD customers, which are then matched with funds from the utility. Customers have a choice of having a regular contribution added to their monthly bill or making a one-time payment with a check made out to Neighbor to Neighbor. Contact the PUD at (541) 296-2226 for more information.