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Independence OK’s relief for utility bills

Staff Writer
The Examiner

With its $6.9 million allocation of federal CARES Act funds from Jackson County, the city of Independence has earmarked the largest portion for utility ratepayer assistance.

The city’s spending plan, approved Monday by the City Council and required by the county to receive funds, includes nearly $2.25 million for grants to community partners for ratepayer assistance, about $2.14 million for public health expenditures, $1.49 million for paid sick, family and medical leave and social distancing precautions, $926,000 for public testing and nearly $91,000 for public safety payroll expenses.

Funds must go toward unanticipated expenses incurred because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city, like many municipalities and private utility companies, waived late fees and suspended utility shutoffs for nonpayments when the pandemic began to hit hard in mid-March. Independence resumed late fees and shutoffs July 15, though it has allowed customers to arrange repayment plans. Credit card and online payment fees continue to be waived.

At its peak earlier in the summer, Independence accumulated about $4 million in outstanding utility payments since the beginning of March, with some people out of work and some electric usage higher with stay-at-home directives. That figure dipped to $2.5 million by the end of July, but that compares to about $900,000 at the same time last year.

The city works with the Community Services League on a pair of utility assistance programs.

The Rate Assistance Program helps pay 50 percent of electric bills for qualified elderly or disabled customers. IShare is emergency assistance for electric, water or gas bills.

Approval did not without some grumbling Monday about how much the city would receive and the county’s process in disbursing funds.

Based on early guidance, city staff put together what Mayor Eileen Weir said she believed was a worthy spending plan of more than $21.5 million in CARES money. When County Executive Frank White Jr. proposed a plan in which half of the county’s $122.7 million would go to cities proportionally based on population, that meant nearly $10.2 million for Independence.

Ultimately, the County Legislature approved a plan last month for $40 million to cities based on population. With that, City Manager Zach Walker, city staff tried to identify the most immediate needs in the community.

Weir said she believed the county wasn’t doing proportional shares because that wouldn’t be completely fair, “but that’s what they did.”

“I feel we have an obligation to our citizens to go after every dollar we can to help us cope with expenses that have come to our city because of COVID,” said Weir, who in June voiced her criticism about the county’s process of deciding CARES allocations. “There’s all these billions of dollars out there, and we’re fighting for a small chunk.”

“It’s really frustrating that they’re getting this money and it has all these guidelines and attachments to it,” Council Member Mike Steinmeyer said. “I want to be responsible with it, but I hate that we’re being almost bullied to receive our tax money coming back tanyo us.”

Council Member John Perkins rated the county’s performance “abysmal” on its timeliness with CARES fund decisions.

County officials say cities need to have detailed spending plans because the federal government will follow up with audits and the county will be on the hook for any spending that’s not in line with what Congress intended.

Specifically, public health expenditures include medical and protective supplies, disinfection and quarantining individuals. On sick leave, as of Monday the city has had 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among city employees – seven firefighters, two in the police department and one each in parks and Power & Light.

If the city was to receive its full request, it had slated another $6.25 million for ratepayer assistance, $5.82 million for public health and $2.57 million for testing.

When they passed their plan last month for disbursing funds to cities, Jackson County officials said they reserved $10 million for future COVID expenses. With less than five months left in 2020, when CARES funds must be spent, and case totals growing faster than a couple months ago, Weir wondered why the county should wait long disburse the rest. Some small communities in the county don’t know how they’re going to spend the money slotted for them, she said.

“We don’t know when the next wave is going to happen; we’re not through the first wave yet,” she said.