By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Noting that tough economic times can be hardest on seniors and the poor, Healdsburg City Council members on Monday declined to end a discount that low-income households receive on their water and sewer bills.
“Those of us who are employed, or have other incomes are struggling,” said Vice-Mayor Gary Plass, adding that seniors on fixed incomes “are really struggling.”
On average, the 185 low-income households that participate in the discount program save about $22 a month, noted Councilman Stephen Babb, who said he was concerned about taking away the service.
“It could be the difference between fresh fruits and vegetables for a few days,” said Councilman Jim Wood. “I have a real hard time taking from the poorest of the poor.”
Among Sonoma County’s cities, only Cotati has a similar discount program. Healdsburg finance officials had recommended the city consider discontinuing the water and sewer discounts, which totalled about $48,000 in the past fiscal year.
Some of the money comes from a utility fund. However, there are legal restrictions on charging some utility users higher rates to fund discounts for others.
Most of the money used to subsidize the Healdsburg program comes from low-income housing development funds. But Finance Director Heather Ippoliti said there is not a clear justification to use the money for the utility bill discounts, since the housing funds are designed to make physical improvements to blighted properties and improve housing availability.
Plass said he didn’t necessarily agree, because the money people save on their sewer and water bills can pay for mowing the lawn, fixing their homes and preventing blight.
But other council members, including Susan Jones, said there was a need to change the way the city pays for the program and suggested the council tap into the Community Benefit Trust Fund, which has more than $745,000 in it.
That money was set aside from the sale of the old City Hall site years ago, and traditionally has funded nonprofit and community groups. In the past couple years, council members suspended the program and have been reluctant to deplete the fund further.
But on Monday the council agreed to direct staff to spend up to $50,000 from the Community Benefit pot to keep the utility discount program going.
If other sources of funds are identified — including a county program that helps low-income sewer and water users — the council may decide not to spend the entire amount.
Currently, low-income households in Healdsburg qualify for a 20 percent discount on their sewer bill and a 15 percent discount on their water bill.
Under the city’s guidelines, a household with one or two people cannot have more than $29,420 in annual income. A household with three people is limited to $37,060 per year, and a household of four, up to $44,700 annually.
Eligibility must be renewed every 12 months.
Discounts for low-income electricity users are still in effect, since state law applies differently to electric rates.