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Only low-income seniors get city bill relief
But council eyes 2017 expansion to more residents
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New credits offsetting the $3.95 monthly storm water fee imposed on Statesboro residents last year and this year's $2 increase in monthly water and sewer base rates will be limited, through June 2017, to people age 65 and older who also qualify as low-income, City Council decided Tuesday.

But for next fiscal year, council members vowed to look again at the possibility of expanding the credits to people who qualify by either poverty or age.

The "and-or" question developed when council approved the $2 water and sewer increase in June with the understanding that the city would provide an offsetting credit like the one authorized last year for the storm water fee. But that fee is limited to residents who are age 65 or older and qualify as low-income. Some council members wanted any residential customers who were either poor or at least age 65 to get the water and sewer bill credit.

When Deputy City Manager Robert Cheshire presented a proposal in July that would have applied the new credit only to the seniors who qualify as low-income, council members did not ask for a change in the proposal itself. But they asked for estimates of the impact of both options on the city's revenues.

"What you did ask from the last meeting was that we provide you with some estimates, and they are estimates, because it's hard to determine how much somebody would participate in a credit program," Cheshire told council Tuesday.

The estimates developed by Public Works Director Jason Boyles involved some assumptions, Cheshire explained. Because nobody knows how many people would sign up, a 50 percent participation rate was assumed for both credits.

Boyles also used an estimate that 53.4 percent of Statesboro households have incomes at or below the poverty level, a number that has appeared in census reports. Households made up of college students are included in Statesboro's economic statistics, and if the credits were expanded to low-income people of all ages, students could qualify.

The city will pay nonprofit Concerted Services Inc. a fee to evaluate low-income status and determine which applicants are eligible.

A household getting both credits will save $71.40 a year.

$13,000 vs. $199,000

If made available only to low-income residents age 65 and up, the credits would reduce the city's revenue by about $11,000 at the 50 percent participation rate, and the fees paid to Concerted Services would be $1,600, Cheshire reported.

But if the credits were expanded to low-income residents of all ages plus senior citizens, and if half of those eligible applied, the two credits together would reduce revenue by around $173,000, and the processing fee to Concerted Services would be about $26,000. In other words, the total projected cost would be $199,000, instead of the $13,000 projected cost of the more limited credit.

Boyles' report used more precise numbers, but as Cheshire noted, the estimates are based on assumptions and aren't actually exact. The point was that the "or" option of including low-income people of all ages, as well as all senior citizens, could be much more expensive than the "and" option benefiting low-income seniors alone.

"Staff's recommendation is still to stick with the 'and' to be consistent, and then I would suggest, as Councilman (Phil) Boyum did at the last council meeting, waiting maybe six months or into the budget process for next year, late winter, January or February maybe, and look at it again," Cheshire said.

At that point, the rate of participation could help guide the cost projections, and the council could decide whether to expand the credit eligibility and work the cost into next fiscal year's budget, he said.

"That's the fiscally responsible way to go," Boyum agreed.

He wasn't trying to speak for all the council members, he added, but thought they all wanted to try to expand the credit to other low-income residents in next year's budget, effective July 1, 2017.

"Even if it gets modified or something, let's start with that as a budget assumption that we're going to go for," Boyum said.

A motion from Councilman Sam Jones, seconded by Councilman Jeff Yawn, to approve the credits for low-income people age 65 and older was unanimously adopted. This was the "and" option.

"I think that 'or' would be ideal," Jones said. "However, it could be financially devastating at this time without planning, so I have to agree that 65 and poverty would be the way to go at this time."

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.



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