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The city makes headway with its garbage-fee assistance program--but it still has a way to go

After years of hesitation, the city of Tucson has finally streamlined its garbage-fee assistance program. But the city still has a long way to go to help as many people as similar efforts operated by Tucson Electric Power Company and Southwest Gas Corporation.

"We've been working to try and get the number of participants up," says TEP's Betsy Bolding, about her firm's assistance program. From the figures achieved, it looks like they've succeeded.

The utility company offers a Lifeline Discount, which provides $8 off monthly residential electrical bills to households that earn less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that level equates to about $29,000 a year.

Bolding says last year, the average number enrolled in the program each month was greater than 17,000. With 28 percent of local households being economically eligible for assistance, that calculates into more than a 17 percent participation rate of TEP customers who qualify.

The Southwest Gas figures are just as impressive for its Low-Income Ratepayer Assistance program. It provides a 20 percent reduction to the monthly cost of gas used between November and April. Covering up to 150 therms, this discount could potentially save someone as much as $25 a month on their winter gas bill.

Using slightly higher income guidelines than both TEP and City Hall, the Southwest Gas program has almost 12,000 households participating in Tucson and Green Valley. This equates to close to 16 percent of company customers who are eligible to benefit.

Both TEP and SW Gas use a simple application form that has to be resubmitted every two years. That length of time and the percentage of people participating are the two major differences between these programs and the one operated by the city of Tucson.

Beginning on July 1, the municipal government's low-income assistance program for its controversial $14-a-month garbage fee saw some significant changes. It has been streamlined to only require a one-page application, with income figures now being self-certified, in order for the city to provide a $12 monthly credit to a household's account. Participants will have to reapply every year, but they will be sent a reminder notice of this requirement.

To publicize the revised procedure, an insert was placed in Tucson Water bills in May. City officials also contacted local social service organizations and issued press releases.

After accepting applications for the past few months, the new program as of last week had almost doubled the number of participating households to 2,757. That figure, however, is still less than 8 percent of the total eligible.

"We think we can get to 10 percent within three months," says Assistant City Manager Karen Masbruch. "My feeling (is eventually) we'll get beyond 15 percent."

Northside City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich says she's pleased with the changes that have been made to the program so far, although she wants the city to do more. "I hope more people access it if they need assistance, but the 8 percent could be taken as a good starting indication," she says.

Uhlich and fellow Democrat Nina Trasoff pushed for revisions to the city's previous garbage-fee assistance program almost as soon as they took office last December ("Billing Blunders," Dec. 22, 2005). Because of its cumbersome application process, monthly renewal requirement and other factors, the earlier program suffered from a low participation rate since it was originated in 2004.

The recent increase in applications doesn't mean the city of Tucson will be short of cash to cover the program's expense. With $1 million of general-fund money budgeted to pay for this and another assistance effort, current participation rates will utilize less than half of that amount.

Acknowledging it is historically difficult to get most people to sign up for programs like this, Uhlich thinks more publicity for the financial-assistance effort may be needed. That will be one topic discussed when the program is reviewed by the City Council's Environment, Planning and Resource Management--Intelligent Growth Subcommittee, which Uhlich chairs, when it meets on July 27.

"Maybe we need more outreach," Masbruch admits, but she also says the city staff has not talked about setting a specific goal for program-participation levels.

At the same time, Masbruch adamantly denies the staff isn't interested in expanding the number of program participants--even though general-fund revenues would be saved, and that money could be spent instead on higher-profile issues, if participation stays down.

"Our intention is not to hold down participation," Masbruch says. "The concern of the City Council members is to get information (about the program) out there."

If that is what the city of Tucson hopes to accomplish, Bolding from TEP has some advice: Just informing social service agencies of the program and distributing application forms to them isn't enough to ensure success, she says.

"We work with those agencies," Bolding states, "and just don't give them brochures about our program. We ask them to help people fill out the application. Plus, we work with new agencies. We've really made an effort."

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