Statesboro city officials recently modified a program they had created with special federal funding three years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic so that it can again assist people who are behind on their water and sewer or other utility bills.
As reauthorized Nov. 7, 2023, by City Council through an amendment to the agreement with nonprofit Action Pact Inc., the program is expected to end when the remaining $50,929 is used up.
Back in October 2020, the council directed $250,000 from an indirect federal grant Statesboro received under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, to programs to assist residents and businesses. This included $100,000 designated for rent and mortgage assistance, $75,000 for small-business grants and $75,000 for utility bill assistance.
The housing cost and small-business assistance programs used all of their available funding, said City Manager Charles Penny.
But when the utility bill assistance program had used less than one-tenth of its allocation by December 2020, the mayor and council shifted $13,000 to food relief. A series of city-funded free food distributions in cooperation with the Feed the Boro volunteer effort then began in January 2021.
Even after that shift in funding, some of the money designated for the utility bill assistance program was never disbursed, as staff members informed the mayor and council this fall. As spelled out in the original “memorandum of understanding,” or MOU, with Action Pact, the assistance was available only to Statesboro residents with financial hardships attributed to COVID-related causes, such as the 2020 shutdown.
“We started out with $75,000, and then we reduced it down to $62,000 because we used some of those funds for food drops with Feed the Boro. To this point, per the current MOU, everything is related to COVID,” Penny told the council Nov. 7.
As previously restricted to COVID-related situations and to a maximum $175 in assistance per household, the program had paid out not quite $11,000 before becoming inactive.
Now less restricted
So two years later, Penny said, the fund still had a $50,929 balance “available that could be used to assist people with water bills, electric bills, gas bills.”
The council never limited the program to utilities services the city itself provides, such as water and sewer and natural gas, so it could also be used to pay electric company bills.
However, Penny noted that assistance is available from other funding sources to help with household power bills. But few programs, he said, assist with water and sewer bills, so the CARES funding, while it lasts, is an added resource for people behind on those payments.
The city staff’s recommendations for the amended agreement included increasing the maximum assistance per household to $250 and removing the wording that limited the help to COVID-related situations.
“We do recommend amending the MOU so Action Pact would have these funds available, and just until they’re expended,” Penny said. “Once they’re expended, they’ll be gone, but they could carry it for a while.”
Action Pact Inc., a regional “community action agency,” administers federal, state and local grant-funded programs for low-income families, senior citizens and children. Locally, these include the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, and meals and activities provided through the Bulloch County Senior Citizens Center.
District 2 City Councilmember Paulette Chavers asked if the city’s program could be modified so that income would not rule out households in need for other reasons.
“I understand it being income-driven, but I think that overlooks, like, individuals who are taking on large responsibilities with income but at the same time they’re spending out a lot,” she said.
District 5 Councilmember Shari Barr noted that many programs consider the number of dependents, “so like if grandma took in five grandchildren,” she might qualify, but not if her income were just for her.
District 1 Councilmember Phil Boyum said he didn’t know what else to go by but income.
“Some people are struggling, and some people bought too many shoes,” he said. “I mean, one is the people we help, and one is the people that need to be more responsible.”
District 3 Councilmember Venus Mack said she understood Chavers’ point.
“Sometimes as a working parent and a single parent, a single mom or single dad, it is so hard, and if you go by income and you have a job and you make over that income level, there’s no assistance for you, and moms and dads still struggle,” Mack said.
Assistant City Manager Jason Boyles noted that the city has a separate program providing water-bill discounts to low-income senior citizens. It is also administered for the city by Action Pact, and the maximum income for seniors to qualify is 125% of the federal poverty level.
“The majority of these programs that Action Pact administers … they’re typically based on poverty levels, and that’s how they make their determination, but it’s at your discretion,” Boyles told council members.
On a motion from Barr, seconded by Mack, council voted 5-0 to amend the agreement as recommended. Penny said the staff would get more information later about other possible options for determining eligibility.
Statesboro residents who need assistance from this program should contact Action Pact, he said Monday. Someone from the organization had called the city seeking a copy of the agreement the day after it was amended because people were already calling, Penny said.
The city pays Action Pact a fee equal to 10% of the money paid out in assistance to administer the program.
CARES and ARPA
The $250,000 directed to the housing, utility bill and small-business assistance programs was a part of $1.7 million Statesboro qualified for under the CARES Act in 2020. The next year, the city qualified for $12.3 million of additional federal funding under the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, and the city government directed much of that funding to longer-term projects also related to food insecurity, utility services and housing.