As the temperatures rise, so do our utilities. City Council decided June 16 (after C-VILLE went to press) whether to raise water rates by 5 percent while county residents’ rates will for sure go up almost 13 percent. Effective July 1, gas rates will also climb $2 and the county was just notified of Dominion Virginia Power’s application to revise its “fuel factor,” taking prices up for their services by 18 percent.
“It’s inevitable but unfortunate,” says City Councilor Holly Edwards. “I’m concerned that people are struggling to pay bills.”
“It’s not too much, but it’s something,” says Ellen Steele, who coordinates the county Department of Social Services’ utility assistance programs.
“The reason I worry about it is because I’m on a fixed income,” says Curtis Overby. The 48-year-old Belmont native lives on a disability check from the government and has been to the hospital three times in the past week for hernia-related issues he has battled for years—a big bandage stretching down his belly as proof.
After rent and bills, Overby estimates he is left with $15 or $20 for the month (food stamps allow him to purchase food). His landlord pays for water, but a rise in rates might cause trouble. “That means my landlord is paying more,” he says. “It could raise my rent.”
While the possibility looms, there is actually a source of temporary relief for someone in his position. Beginning June 16, both the city and county social services started offering cooling assistance under a state-funded, low-income energy program that also provides help with fuel costs in the wintertime. Unlike the winter assistance, the summer program only applies to a household with a “vulnerable” person.
To fall under that distinction, you must be over 60 or under 6, or, like Overby, receive certain types of disability. Even if disability is received, the recipient must fall under certain income guidelines. As set by the state, a household of two must make less than $1,517 a month, and a household of one must make less than $1,127 a month. Overby makes less than $600, which would free him up for a potential $150 this summer—for the period of June 16 through August 15—for help with purchasing equipment like fans or as help with an electricity bill.
“It’s not too much, but it’s something,” says Ellen Steele, who supervises the program for the county’s Department of Social Services. Last year, the county served around 300 households each through the cooling program while the city served 459. As there is a greater need for assistance when it is cold, the cooling funds are actually limited and could run out before mid-August.
“We’ve got money to spend,” says Rebecca Rush, outreach coordinator for the Community Energy Conservation Program (CECP). With state and federal funding, CECP offers a more permanent approach to cutting the costs of utilities for those who live within 130-150 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines, which is about $21,000 annually for a family of four.
“Our goal and our focus is to make sure the home is insulated properly,” says Rush. According to her, CECP actions like weather stripping will reduce cooling and heating bills by 25-30 percent. Applicants will likely experience a two- to six-month wait.
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