Elgin City Council backs proposal to help residents with water bills
Despite some argument over the revenue source, Elgin City Council members have tentatively agreed on a way to help residents with unpaid water bills.
The $400,000 Elgin Emergency Utility Program, recommended for approval during Wednesday's committee of the whole meeting, will help residents who can demonstrate need with a one-time grant of up to $400. The program will be administered by the Salvation Army Corps of Elgin, which will receive a 5% administrative fee.
A final vote on the program will come at a future council meeting.
Unpaid utility bills have been mounting since water shut-off for nonpayment was suspended by the city during the federal and state eviction moratoriums. Uncollected utility bills have grown by $1 million in the last year, City Manager Rick Kozal said.
The council had previously approved a graduated plan for seeking payment that focuses on accounts with the highest delinquent amounts. That plan involves sending staggered shut-off notices to residents in four financial categories, starting with those with more than $1,000 due.
The shut-off mailings will include a bilingual flyer informing residents about financial assistance programs in the area and directs them to the city's "Financial Assistance and Other Resources" Web page. City officials said they will not shut off water service to a household demonstrating ant inability to make any payment.
The city is also waiving the $50 reconnection fee and is offering one-year payment plans in conjunction with a first payment being made to avoid shut-off.
The $400,000 to pay for the program will come from unallocated revenue from the Riverboat Fund, which had been set aside for unforeseen costs related to the pandemic. Though ultimately recommended by an 8-1 vote, the decision to use the money set off a contentious discussion among the council members during Wednesday's meeting.
Toby Shaw said the city should take a step back and wait to see what it will be able to do with the $21.6 million it expects to receive in federal stimulus money.
"You see it from (Washington) D.C., everyone loves to give away money," Shaw said. "At some point you need to stop."
Shaw noted the recent stimulus checks and other previous federal programs were set up to help residents, while the city has other needs.
"We're going to give this (Riverboat) money away, where I think there's other funding sources that can already do that," he said. "But we need the badge on our chest, and I don't understand why we need to do that."
Tish Powell acknowledged the federal assistance but said it hasn't been enough for some residents.
"For a lot of people, it has been a drop in the bucket, and it doesn't fully address the magnitude of what a lot of folks are facing in this community," she said.
Carol Rauschenberger said an estimated 10% of people across the country are not able to pay their rent or mortgage, meaning there are probably about 3,000 homes in Elgin in the same situation.
"These are the families we're talking about," she said. "I think if we are a caring community, this is what we should be doing."