A team at National League of Cities is working with five cities on a two-year pilot project called LIFT-UP that aims to improve payment rates while helping residents achieve economic stability. The pilot reframes the importance of missed utility payments: Yes, they represent lost revenue for the city, but they are also a way of identifying people in financial distress who need help.
The five participating cities — Houston; Louisville, Ky.; Newark, N.J.; Savannah, Ga.; and St. Petersburg, Fla. — each have a slightly different version of the pilot, though the general idea is to target a sample of customers in low-income neighborhoods that have outstanding bills. In the five pilot cities, about a third of utility customers have late payments.
Most cities are in the beginning stages of the experiment, but Savannah launched its pilot last August. Program participants there have to be utility customers who have had their water cut off at least once in the past two years and now owe anywhere from $150 to $500. By joining the pilot, residents can make a smaller downpayment to keep the water running (25 percent of their outstanding bill, rather than 50 percent). They can also extend the timeframe for repaying the rest of the debt from the usual 10 days to four months. Once they’ve completed the program, they also stand to receive $50 credited to their next water bill, paid for by private foundations supporting the pilot.
In exchange for participation, utility customers have to take a one-on-one financial counseling session with a nonprofit provider. During the session, residents get help strategizing ways to keep up with future bills. The nonprofit also helps them see if they are eligible for public assistance programs, such as food stamps, Medicaid, child care assistance and subsidies to pay energy bills.
So far, Savannah has recruited at least 50 participants and 13 have completed the program. Completion means that customers have paid off their outstanding bills. Sometimes, however, it’s possible that some pay off their debt by not keeping up with other current payments, one potential weakness of the pilot’s design.