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'H2O' Program Aims To Ease Burden Of Water Bills For The Poor

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'H2O' Program Aims To Ease Burden Of Water Bills For The Poor
'H2O' Program Aims To Ease Burden Of Water Bills For The Poor GUESTS:David Alvarez, San Diego City Councilmember Seth Gates, deputy director of finance and information technology, City of San Diego Public Utilities Department

As the cost of water. It is tougher for low income San Diegans to pay their water bills. State laws make it virtually impossible for the city to reduce rates based on income. City Council is exploring another route. To an assistance program ended by donations from the public. Joining me to explain the new help to others -- H2O program is San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez. Also here is that gave the director of finance and information technology for the public utilities department for the city of San Diego. Welcome 3 David what is it about state law that ties the city's hands in setting water weights? Proposition to 18 does not allow any water ratepayer to subsidize anybody else. Or pay more than what the cost of water to them is. That is what -- does not allow for anybody to pay less than the cost of water. That is in the Constitution and it is very clear. The courts have ruled on this again and again. There is no legal mechanism to allow this. Before proposition to 18 was approved there was -- were other cities that had a system in place where they did subsidize some of the low income uses. As rates continue to be updated and increase or changed, those sorts of programs are going away. Certainly as you mentioned there are a lot of people that are low income seniors just like an hour electricity bills who faced challenges to pay the basic use of electricity. What I can't -- think is a very basic human need. We're trying to be creative and do something different. What you hear from people who are struggling? I want to acknowledge a few other things. Not only did this, get approved yesterday -- we are establishing a fund that would establish program. The department has been doing a great job under Paul Roddick -- Wilson Kennedy and I want to acknowledge of the work. Courtesy for shut off which was a big problem. I heard from people who are getting their water shut off because they miss a payment. There is more of a customer service focus now in the water department. The other thing -- peoples water was getting shut off on a weekend and the city crews were not able to turn it back on. Families were without water for a few days or other -- over holidays. There is a focus on serving the customers at their needs to ensure everybody has access to water in San Diego. You have heard from constituents that say with the rising rates they are having trouble croissant Absolutely. Obviously we went to that in the last year. The increasing cost in every -- everything whether water or electricity, people are struggling in San Diego. We talked about earlier the affordable housing is a big issue. All those things combine San Diego difficult place to survive. Economically -- this is a way to help those who are challenged in making their water payments. The city Council recently approved a package of water rate hikes. It first went into effect in January. Remind us how those are going up? The rates are going up based on cost of water increasing and the drought we are facing. Starting in July we have a rate increase going into effect of about 6.4%. Every July thereafter until July 2019 the city Council has approved a rate increase is on those costs being passed on to us for rising water cost. To adjust keeps going up every year -- it just keeps going up every year. Will they have to come up with the details on how this new program will work? As of right now, we have some broad based items that we are looking at. This has been implemented in other -- a number of other jurisdictions. We're looking at how they had implemented them. The best way we can move forward in notifying customers for donations participation when we get to that point. We're looking for the most low cost high efficient ways to message the program and get it out of the citizens. When we were talking about what this might look like -- could there be a box on your check that you can just check off the way you do on the boxes on the tax forms? Absolutely. We're looking at a number of ways and that is one of the primary ways. When you receive a bill in the mail there will be a separate line item to donate. We're also looking at implementing a way you can donate online when you pay your bill online. Even things like recurring payments -- if you want to make a continuous donation. Making it as easy as possible to learn about the program and donate. David Alvarez -- the city itself are they going to maintain the program or is it going to be placed in the hands of a nonprofit croissant We're going to continue to have those discussions. It could be a potential with the administration could be managed through a nonprofit. I think that and the staff is looking to have another discussion at the Council. What we have done now with the actually -- we established a fund to allow donations to begin the next couple of months. As the money is put into these fun. We will have to find a way on how we're going to administer the program. Obviously the city will have oversight to ensure the money is being utilized. It is a 501(c)(3) type of donation so it'd is tax-deductible. So we're going to encourage people to help donate but also provide opportunity for other community leaders to step up to provide this very basic human need to a lot of people who are struggling to make this happen. You mentioned other municipalities have experimented or have implemented this kind of a program where one set of users will donate so that another set of users -- low income and pay their bills. We're stepping done croissant Currently it is being done in a number -- number of states. The one we're looking at specifically is Riverside. They receive approximately $55,000 on average from donations. Much smaller as compared to the city of San Diego. They receive a matching philanthropic donation dependent on how many donations they receive during that year. So they receive about 100,000 per year. Taking that into account with a number of customers we have, we hope to achieve maybe about hundred and 75,000 and donations on an annual basis -- This idea David Alvarez -- could rub middle-class people the wrong way. As they get hit with higher and higher water bills themselves. Isn't there something the city could do perhaps reduce the sewer charges on the water bill and other fees to help out low income residents? We had a pretty robust discussion about water rates a few months ago. I had a different perspective on what happened. At the end of the day the majority decided this is the way they were going to get increased and that is the world we live in today. Will we have to do is deal with that reality. The race at every level fortunately are going up -- unfortunately are going up. Whether you are in the middle tier -- low income family who uses X number of water or a low water user -- everybody will see an increase. This is about ensuring -- is voluntary, nobody has to donate. If you feel strongly that it is a basic human right for people to have access to water in San Diego, you will participate. I certainly look forward to doing that. There are probably a lot of people in San Diego who understand that need and who are going to step up to the play. What is the timeline on developing this program doesn't We are hoping to establish this fun to accept these -- fun to accept his donations. We're hoping this happens in April or May. We will begin messaging with inserts that go out to customers online through social media or every way possible --. We need to determine what the interest in the program is in terms of donations so we can craft the program to make sure that we help people with the most efficacy as possible. We expect that the program will begin assisting customers hopefully within the first quarter of 2017. I have been speaking with San Diego city councilmember David Alvarez and Seth Gates deputy director of -- with the city water department.

‘H2O’ Program Aims To Ease Burden Of Water Bills For The Poor
The San Diego City Council has approved a new program to give assistance to low-income water customers. The program will be run on voluntary donations because of statewide restrictions on utilities.

Four months after increasing water rates, the San Diego City Council on Tuesday approved a program to help poor water customers pay their bills.

The program, branded Help to Others, or H2O, would solicit tax-deductible donations from ratepayers through their water bills. That money would subsidize the water bills of low-income San Diegans.

The program has to be voluntary because of a state law that requires utilities to charge their customers no more than the actual cost of service. The law, Proposition 218, was passed by California voters in 1996 and forbids imposing higher rates on some customers to subsidize others.

"Water is a human right," Councilman David Alvarez said. "We need to be focused on providing this ... to every person, so that everybody can have access to it and everybody can afford it."

Alvarez also commended the Public Utilities Department for other measures it has taken to assist low-income residents, including a two-week grace period for bill payment and a one-time waiver of fees for shutting off or restoring water service.

Administration of the program will likely be outsourced to a local nonprofit organization with experience in evaluating residents' financial needs.

City staffers acknowledge they do not know how much donation money they can get through the program, or how many people it will benefit. They aim to begin a public outreach campaign soliciting donations in April or May, with the goal of giving financial assistance to poor water customers by July 2017.