So far, 81 Statesboro residents age 65 and up with limited incomes have signed up for a city-sponsored break on their water and sanitation bills, reports Alex Smith, Bulloch County coordinator for Concerted Services Inc.
The number of people signing up increased in November after City Council raised the threshold to 125 percent of the federally recognized poverty level. November is also the month when many seniors visit Concerted Services to sign up for federal assistance with home heating bills, so the nonprofit corporation has been taking the city applications at the same time.
"The previous month we only did about seven applications," Smith said the day before Thanksgiving. "This month alone we have already done about 55 applications for the credit, so it has been booming."
Initially, the city set the qualifying threshold at exactly 100 percent of the federal poverty rate. But Smith reported that this would bar many people with marginally higher incomes. Besides, 125 percent of the poverty guideline was already the cutoff for some of the federal programs Concerted Services Inc., also known as CSI, administers.
CSI began taking the applications on the city's behalf in August, when the first 11 arrived. There were eight applicants in September and seven in October, not counting those turned away for being above the original income limit, Smith said.
After City Council raised the limit in mid-October, CSI called back applicants who were previously told they didn't qualify.
"I would say it was about seven or eight people we called and they came back in, and we did the applications because they qualify now based on the 125 percent," Smith said.
The combined credit available is $5.95 a month, or $71.40 a year. This includes a credit City Council approved to offset the $3.95 monthly storm water fee added to each household's bill beginning in 2015, plus a $2 credit approved this year to counteract an increase in the residential water bill base charge.
At the 100 percent of poverty level guideline, an individual would have qualified with an income of $990 a month or less. But with the 125 percent threshold, an individual can make up to $1,238 a month, according to information Smith gave the city.
Cost to city
Earlier this year, City Council discussed whether the credits should go to all residential city utility customers who qualified as low income, regardless of age, as well as to all customers age 65 and up.
But after hearing cost projections, the council adopted the much less expensive option, granting the credit only to low-income residents who are also senior citizens. City staff members projected that, at a 50 percent participation rate, the credits would reduce annual revenue by about $11,000 and result in $1,600 in fees to Concerted Services.
If the credits had been expanded to low-income residential customers of all ages plus all seniors, and if half of those then eligible applied, the credits could have reduced the city's revenue by around $173,000, Deputy City Manager Robert Cheshire reported in August. This would also have resulted in processing fees of about $26,000 to Concerted Services, which is paid on the number of applicants.
With more than 80 people signed up, the participation rate so far is about 25 percent of those originally estimated to be eligible as low-income seniors.
The applications are not taken at City Hall but at the Concerted Services Inc. office on Denmark Street, where the number to call for an appointment or information is (912) 489-1604.
A picture ID, proof of income, Social Security card and the utility bill are needed to apply, Smith said.
Meanwhile, CSI has been taking applications for the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program exclusively from senior citizens through November. But as of Dec. 1, the current round of LIHEAP funding will be opened up to bill payers of all ages who may qualify with limited income for as long as the current regional funding lasts, Smith said.
Initially, the Bulloch County Concerted Services office was allotted 737 appointments for LIHEAP applicants, with the ability to put 400 more on a waiting list, but so far has not used up the initial appointments, Smith said.
The federally funded program provides a heating assistance award for the season of either $350 or $310, depending on household size and income. The money is paid directly to an energy provider, such as an electric company or natural gas system, as a credit on the household's account.
Households placed on a waiting list may be provided a LIHEAP grant in a second round of funding, Smith said.
Unlike the seasonal federal program, the city credit will be available year-round, but applications must be renewed annually.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.