TURNING ON THE TAP: Aurora City Council approves new water bill assistance program for low-income homeowners

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AURORA | Aurora City Council this week signed off on a new payment assistance program that will help subsidize water bills for residents facing financial hardships.

The program, dubbed the Aurora Water Cares Customer Assistance Program, will be funded by public donations and late fees generated by residents who don’t pay bills on time. The city’s Citizens’ Water Advisory Committee recommended allocating a maximum of $300,000 in late-fee funds for the program at a regular meeting earlier this year, according to city documents.

Aurora Water only began imposing late fees on past-due water payments last year, according to city documents. The penalty fees generated $982,576 from February through December of last year. Officials have said they expect the late fee pot to decrease this year as people become aware of the new penalty system.

The Spirit of Aurora, a nonprofit fundraising branch of the city that benefits social programs, will set up a donation pool for the program, according to city documents. Residents will also be able to donate by checking a box on their water bills.

The city will retain at least one external nonprofit organization to run the application process, according to Marena Lertch, water billing manager with the city.

“The goal of that nonprofit would be that they could process the applications for us,” Lertch said.

The partnering nonprofit, which has not yet been selected, would also provide annual donor contribution letters and dispense the donations.

Qualified water customers in the city will be eligible for an award up to $125 every two years, according to Lertch. Grant recipients would not be able to receive more than four awards.

“This program is intended to assist in times of short-term financial crisis,” according to city documents.

Enrollees in LEAP, the state’s federally funded energy assistance program, could be automatically qualified for the program, according to Lertch. LEAP program enrollees cannot earn more than 165 percent of the federal poverty index, according to the state’s Department of Human Services.

Assistance funds will only be available to homeowners — not renters. That stipulation peeved Councilwoman Marsha Berzins of Ward III, where only 35 percent of the roughly 25,000 housing units are are owner-occupied, according to the city’s 2016 demographic report. About 57 percent of the units are rented.

“I was glad to hear that you can only apply once every two years, but I’m concerned, especially in Wards I and III, that it’s only for owner-occupied because we have a huge percentage of tenants,” Berzins said. “Why in the world wouldn’t you want to help tenants, renters?”

In Ward I, which encompasses north Aurora, only about 28 percent of the units are owner-occupied, and about 61 percent of the homes are rented.

Marshall Brown, the city’s director of water, said the decision to exclude renters was made due to the fact that the burden of water bill payment in the city resides with landlords.

“It’s not so much that we don’t want to help tenants, but the water bill payment responsibility resides with the owner of the property,” Brown said. “So we struggle a little bit with getting in the middle of that relationship … we can’t actually hold the tenant accountable like we can the owner, and so that world gets a little complicated at times.”

The city shut off the water to about 9,000 homes last year, according to city documents. A shutoff can occur if a bill is not paid within 60 days of the billing date. The penalty period will be extended if it expires while an application for the subsidy program is being processed, according to Lertch.

At the Monday study session, some council members expressed trepidation about the program’s funding structure.

“I have heartburn with being charitable with other people’s money, which is what we’re doing,” Councilman Bob LeGare said.

LeGare suggested revisiting the program after one year to potentially rejig the funding streams and require the program to only be funded by donations.

Council members agreed to immediately implement the program and revisit it at the end of 2018.

The program will not begin dispensing money for another six to nine months, however, as water employees still need to retain an affiliated nonprofit to run the program through a request for proposals process, according to Brown.