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Low-income residents could face winter rate increase with less assistance

Low-income ratepayers for the Lansing Board of Water & Light will not only face a possible increase at the height of the winter season, they also could find assistance programs in high demand and short supply.

That news comes despite earlier assurances by BWL officials that they could handle assisting an estimated 10,000 low income consumers struggling to pay their bills.

Because the publicly owned utility has opted out of a state program that funds two utility assistance programs, BWL customers are ineligible for state emergency relief funding for their electrical bills.

In September, and again this week, BWL officials assured City Pulse the money to assist those struggling with their bills was available through funding from the utility.

“BWL provides multi-pronged customer assistance that ensures BWL dollars are contributed only to BWL customers in need,” said Steve Serkaian, a BWL spokesman. The BWL’s reason for not participating in the state fund was that its contributions would help provide subsidies for non-BWL customers.

Data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services shows BWL consumers received over $700,000 in utility assistance from the state agency in 2017.

BWL identified funding accounts for less than $400,000, according to a statement emailed by BWL official Amy Adamy.

“Pennies for Power averages $50,000 in annual payment assistance from money raised by customer contributions and BWL community program contributions,” Adamy’s email said. “The BWL also has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the City of Lansing in which BWL contributes $200,000 for customer payment assistance. Both Pennies and the MOU are administered by Lansing’s Society of St. Vincent DePaul. In addition, BWL works with several local agencies that provide payment assistance to BWL customers. One such agency provided $127,000 in payment assistance to BWL customers last year. Lastly, the BWL works with its customers year-round to provide flexible payment plans when they fall behind.”

In exchange for opting out of the program — which would cost ratepayers about 93 cents a month — the- BWL is prohibited from turning off electrical service between Nov. 1 and April 15. Serkanian originally told City Pulse opting into the program would require winter turn-offs, but a week later sent a retraction noting he was wrong. The utility can still shut off water to a home for nonpayment of a bill in the winter.

Delta Township Supervisor Ken Fletcher said the lack of available funding “absolutely” concerned him, particularly in light of a forecast of a brutal winter coming up.

“I just don’t understand why they didn’t opt in,” he said.


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