Commitment of Energy

City leaders don't contribute to their own program helping poor people pay the light bills.

LAST WEEK, Seattle City Light shocked City Hall by announcing a $160 million shortfall that may result in new rate hikes. How committed are Seattle's political leaders to helping low-income people during this ongoing energy crisis? It depends on whether you consider the public or the private.

Professionally, the Seattle City Council did a lot last year. It provided $400,000 in matching funds to Project Share, a City Light program that helps pay the electric bills of very low-income people. Project Share is mostly funded by voluntary donations; you may recall solicitations on your electric bill to automatically contribute $1 a month to the program. The new matching funds boosted Project Share's reserves to over $900,000, hopefully allowing it to meet increased demand for almost two years.

But did any of Seattle's elected officials personally contribute to Project Share last year? The answer is: nine nays and one undetermined. According to information released by City Light to neighborhood activist Alan Deright, neither Mayor Greg Nickels nor any member of the City Council—except for Jan Drago, whose City Light record couldn't be found—has contributed to Project Share in the past year.

In addition, the vast majority of people who qualify for assistance with their electric bills aren't getting it, and some council members seem unaware of the programs they helped expand.

"I'm not aware of that project," commented council member Richard McIver, when asked why he had chosen not to donate to Project Share. "First of all, I don't pay the bills at home. My wife does that."

Council member Judy Nicastro notes pointedly, "I consider my electric bill my personal life." She adds, "I may not personally wish to donate to a program because I'm contributing to other charities."

Even council member Heidi Wills, who took the lead in securing the matching funds for Project Share, didn't donate to the project personally. Wills says, "There are two ways to give to causes you care deeply about. One is financially, and another is to dedicate time and energy. I believe it's been important for me to promote and inform people about this program."

When asked why she didn't give, council member Margaret Pageler responded with a three-word e-mail: "Other charitable priorities."

Council member Nick Licata suggests that his lack of a donation was an oversight. "I haven't [contributed], and I don't have an excuse. But I'll change my ways and take the opportunity next time to contribute."

The mayor and the other council members did not respond to Seattle Weekly's queries about Project Share.

Meanwhile, the city remains well behind its overall goal of helping 5,000 poor households with their utility bills. The city of Seattle's "utility rate" program cuts low-income households' trash, water, and electric bills in half. Last year, in an effort to help more people with rising utility costs, Wills led the effort to enroll more Seattleites in the program by increasing the maximum income to qualify for the program to 200 percent of the federal poverty level—$1,432 a month for a single person. As energy costs spiked, and the economy began to slide, the number of households that qualified grew from 35,000 to 47,000. Yet participation in the program only went from 2,100 to 2,700, far short of the city's goal of 5,000 households.

George Wood, manager of the city's utility assistance programs for the Human Services Department, says low participation rates aren't from a lack of city outreach. "A lot of [eligible] people are so busy with their lives. They don't look at this stuff until they are in a crisis." The program, he says, "has a high turnover rate" that comes from the instability in its participants' lives—they are constantly changing jobs, housing, and family situations, he says. Wood touts the fact that the city has brochures about its assistance programs in 14 languages. He also cites a host of innovative direct outreach efforts city government conducts almost daily to increase enrollment.

The city's 2002 goal is the same as last year's—to have 5,000 households participate in its utility assistance program. How city officials will contribute to that effort remains to be seen.

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