Council Approves New Utility Bill Relief Program

With utility rates scheduled to increase in the fall, the City Council authorized a new Burbank Water and Power program giving electricity bill credits to low-income residents.

The program is expected to go into effect at the beginning of October, when the utility will raise its electricity and water rates; further increases are planned for early next year. Residents who meet income eligibility thresholds and have been financially impacted by COVID-19 will receive a one-time bill credit of $50.

Eligible residents whose accounts are in arrears — 91 days or more past due as of the program start date — and have owed more than $500 in their electric bills for that time period will receive a $300 bill credit. Furthermore, residents in this category who are elderly or have a permanent disability and are also in the BWP’s Lifeline program can receive up to $1,000 in assistance.

That size of a bill credit, BWP marketing associate Glenn Oyoung told the City Council on Tuesday, would wipe away the electricity bill debt of most Lifeline program participants.

The average residential outstanding utility bill — including electricity, water and sewage — is about $820, according to a staff report submitted to the council. The outstanding balance for all Lifeline participants was about $41,000 as of last month.

Though water and power disconnections and late fees for residential customers have remained suspended for most of the pandemic, BWP plans to resume those policies starting Oct. 1, according to the staff report. Oyoung also explained to the Leader that late fees would return in October, with the earliest disconnections occurring sometime in November.

The new program is paid for by the BWP’s public benefits fund, which state law requires utilities to use to help residential customers. The fund also fuels the BWP’s job loss bill credit program, which offers similar assistance to Burbank residents who have been out of work during the coronavirus pandemic. Though the council approved $2 million for that program, which began in November, $1.2 million remains. The new initiative for low-income residents will share that program’s funds.

Residents who received bill credits from the job loss program — which required participants to agree to a payment plan for the remainder of their debt — will not be eligible for the $300 or $1,000 relief disbursements. The job loss program is scheduled to expire at the end of September, freeing up funds for the new initiative.

Burbank residents owed about $3.1 million in outstanding utility bills — including water, electricity and other services — as of May, the staff report notes, up from less than $1 million in March 2020.

“We still feel that there’s assistance needed out there by our customers,” Oyoung said. “And it’s not just a feeling — you can see that’s the data.”

Business owners owed about $1.4 million to the BWP in May, a figure that decreased drastically from its December high of $4.4 million after late fees and disconnections resumed for medium to large companies at the end of the year.

Councilman Konstantine Anthony expressed disappointment that the new program — as is the case with many of BWP’s programs — isn’t available to small business owners, and floated the idea of increasing the amount of aid offered.

However, Councilman Jess Talamantes noted that doing so could reduce the number of residents the program would serve. Oyoung also explained the public benefits fund can be used to help only residents, not businesses.

For the purposes of the program, which uses the same income eligibility rules as the city’s Program, Activity and Service Subsidy initiative, “low-income” includes single-person households that make $68,580 or less a year, two-person households that make  $76,538 or less and three-person households that make $84,191 or less.

Burbank’s median household income in 2019 dollars was $75,827, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The predecessor to this program, the job loss bill credit initiative, has proved popular among residents, according to the BWP. Nearly 90% of surveyed residents rated the program highly, it said in a staff report. The number of applicants has plummeted since spiking in December, having provided aid to more than 2,800 people as of last month.