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City studying water bill credits
Assistance would be only for qualified residents
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Will credits reducing the city of Statesboro’s water bills extend to people who are either age 65 and older or have low incomes, or only to those who are both senior citizens and poor?

City Council did not have an answer Tuesday, but the question points out the big difference the little words “and” and “or” can make. The new credit most clearly in question would be worth $2 a month to most qualifying households, while another credit, already available, is worth $3.95 a month.

But these could potentially cost the city tens of thousands of dollars in revenue if the credits can be claimed by low-income people under age 65 and by seniors regardless of income.

“What we’ve got in front of you … would read that if you were 65 or older ‘and’ with an annual income below the established poverty line, you would be eligible for applying for that credit,” interim City Manager Robert Cheshire told council members.

When they approved an increase in the monthly base charge on water and sewer bills last month, council members proposed a new credit to help some customers. A $2 monthly credit would counteract the cost of the increased charge for a qualifying in-town household.

“Discussing that with some of the council members since that time … some of you were feeling more that it should be ‘or’,” Cheshire said.

Last year, after enacting Statesboro’s first-ever stormwater fees, the council acted to create a $3.95 credit on sanitation fees for low-income residents age 65 and older, offsetting the new $3.95 fee billed to each household. This summer’s proposed additional $2 credit, meant to offset the water and sewer increase, was said to be modeled on the stormwater credit.

But after the June 21 meeting, some council members said they weren’t sure whether the proposed new credit would apply just to water customers who are both senior citizens and have low incomes, or to the larger number of residents who would meet one or the other condition.

Councilmen John Riggs said he wanted to see it apply to both, and Councilman Travis Chance said he had understood it that way.

“I’d personally like to see it be 65 ‘or’ because some of the people who are 65 just don’t have the money. …,” Councilman Sam Jones said Tuesday. “I would like it to go ‘65 or poverty.’”

 

First credit budgeted

Last summer, the original $3.95 credit was stated as being for people age 65 and over with low incomes. In fact, this first credit is only now being put into effect, since the council authorized Mayor Jan Moore last month to sign an agreement with nonprofit Concerted Services Inc. for its help verifying utility fee credit applications.

But the original $3.95 stormwater utility credit was incorporated into the 2016-17 budget with the understanding that it would be only for senior citizens who qualify as low-income, Cheshire noted.

So Cheshire recommended that the council keep the original credit on this basis for now, while making a clarification only on the additional $2 credit.

Moore said she had been asked to determine what council intended and had asked Riggs.

“It kind of got a little confusing. I think what was said by council, and I think what was actually said in the paper as well, was, for the $2 fee ‘65 or below the poverty level,’ and so we wanted to get a clarification on that,” Moore said.

The options, she said, were to make a decision on just the new $2 credit, but leave the $3.95 credit restricted to those who are both older and have low incomes, or to “revamp the whole thing.”

“My concern with totally revamping the whole thing was that we did budget based on what was originally passed with that $3.95,” Moore said. “So I do have a concern with that. That could potentially be a lot if you go to ‘or’ based on that.”

She said the credits could cost “well in excess of $100,000” if expanded in this way. Council members talked about the potential of university students applying on the basis of their often low incomes.

 

Not decided yet

As of Tuesday, no residents had applied for even the original credit, Cheshire said. But he noted that the city has only now lined up a means of handling the applications with help from Concerted Services.

Riggs said he had had no cost figures in mind when he suggested the more inclusive credit. Tuesday’s discussion took place on a first reading of the ordinance change. Chance asked Cheshire to supply cost estimates, including a “worst case impact,” before the proposed credit is presented for a vote at a future meeting.

 

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