By Mina Williams Enterprise editor
As the economy continues to lag, more residents are unable to pay for higher electric bills and heating costs.
“We understand that many people may be experiencing hardship given the tough economy,” said Neil Neroutsos, spokesman for the Snohomish County Public Utility District. “The PUD and the county both offer assistance to help and also work closely with local agencies to help identify solutions.”
Neighbors help neighbors
One fund, administered by the Red Cross, is Project PRIDE (Providing Relief for Individuals Dependent on Energy). It provides limited emergency grant payments for households that have received a notice of disconnection of service and are struggling to make ends meet due to limited financial resources.
More than $2 million in energy bills have been paid by the Snohomish County Chapter of the American Red Cross since the program’s inception in 1982. The project’s funding comes almost entirely from donations from ratepayers.
“We can all help our neighbors, too, by considering making a contribution to Project PRIDE when we pay our bills,” Neroutsos said.
Donations can be made by adding an additional amount to the payment on PUD bills, made by a separate check included with the PUD bill, or mailed directly to the Snohomish County Chapter of the American Red Cross.
Project PRIDE has helped more than 980 Snohomish County families keep their homes warm and their lights on, said Clare Waite, program administrator at the Red Cross.
“It relieves the anxiety many experience when there is not sufficient funds to meet their basic needs,” she said.
The fund is also supplemented by service groups and employee-driven efforts. Just before Christmas, Edmonds Rotary donated $5,000 to the Project PRIDE fund.
Other programs also stand ready to help Snohomish County residents supplement their energy expenses.
Snohomish County’s Energy Assistance Program provides one-time aid per season to pay a heating bill — electric, oil, natural gas, wood, propane — for eligible households. Grants range from $25 to $1,000, depending on income, household size and amount of the heating bill. Heating system repair bills are also included in the county’s assistance.
More than $6.2 million, coming from settlements negotiated by the state with various energy companies related to the 2000-01 energy crisis, are being distributed specifically for programs providing low-income energy assistance statewide.
More than $640,000 will come to Snohomish County through the PUD. These funds are being allocated to assist consumers that may not qualify for low-income assistance under other programs, and to provide a safety net of energy bill vouchers for households experiencing hardship.
Throughout the year, the PUD offers seniors and low-income households discounts of 20 to 60 percent on electricity bills, based on income level. The district has budgeted $4.7 million for the 2009-10 season to aid an estimated 13,000 customers.
On the front lines, PUD employees have instituted Helping Hands. This fund assists low-income senior citizens with their utility bills.