Two Cape council members pan utility assistance idea

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Calling it a form of welfare, two Cape Girardeau City Council members threw up hurdles that could kill a proposal that is intended to help low-income families pay their utility bills.

Member Mark Lanzotti said during the council's Monday night study session he would likely vote against the plan to spend more than a quarter-million dollars from the city's sewer fund to help offset rate increases that went into effect July 1.

"City government's role is not deciding what are essentially welfare handouts," Lanzotti said.

Member John Voss said his opposition isn't set, but he voiced concerns about the proposal that may be voted on as early as the council's Sept. 6 meeting.

In order to support the measure, Voss said, he would like to see applicants' cable and cellphone bills to make sure they are making tough choices. He also said he would not support a measure that paid cash directly to the applicant.

"If they're asking for a handout, we need to set the bar and make sure they are cutting to the bone before we offer them assistance," Voss said.

Meanwhile, Mayor Harry Rediger said he liked the plan and initially asked for an ordinance to be put on the council agenda for a first-reading vote for the first meeting in September.

"I would like to move forward, sooner rather than later," Rediger said. "Now is when the bills are coming in."

But after Lanzotti and Voss raised their objections, Rediger asked city staff -- a memo was prepared by assistant city manager Heather Brooks -- to work to draft a proposal with their comments in mind. The council will stay in contact, he said, before deciding whether to put the item on the agenda.

As proposed, the program would allow for qualifying residents over a three-year period to avoid utility cutoffs. The program would only last three years to provide an estimated 750 Cape Girardeau households time to adjust their budgets.

The annual assistance limit would "step down" each year with the first year set at $200 per household, $100 the second and $50 the third. The average increase for households is about $200 annually.

Costs to the city would be $150,000 the first year, $75,000 the second and $37,500 the third. A suggested guideline for qualification is 50 percent of the median income for a family of four, which is $26,800.

While Brooks' memo talks about getting another agency, such as the Salvation Army or the Community Caring Council, to administer the program, council members also were resistant to hire a third party to handle city funds that would eventually make their way back into city coffers via paid utility bills.

"I'm inclined to keep this in-house myself," Rediger said.

Voss called that an "inefficient movement of money."

Both Voss and Lanzotti said the city was forced to raise rates to build a new wastewater treatment plant to meet new federally mandated requirements and voters approved that plan. They both expressed doubt as to whether voters would approve of the money being spent this way.

"Our hands were forced to build a new wastewater treatment plant," Voss said. "We need to be cognizant that it is a hardship on a lot of people. But we're not in the business of shifting revenue, because the burden gets shifted to other people. The bills are still going to get paid. It's just a matter of who pays them."


Pertinent addresses:

401 Independence St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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