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Spokane City Council extends loosened restrictions on help for utility bills amid pandemic

UPDATED: Tue., April 20, 2021

Spokane City Hall.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Spokane City Hall. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Restrictions have slowly eased, but for many, the economic pain of the pandemic has not.

With that in mind, the Spokane City Council voted unanimously on Monday to extend the looser eligibility requirements for city utility assistance first enacted more than a year ago, just as the coronavirus arrived in Eastern Washington.

The city’s U-Help utility assistance program typically limits payments to one per household a year and requires recipients to have received a final notice of delinquency.

But with economic hurt caused by the pandemic severe and the need for help broad, the city has temporarily done away with those restrictions. On Monday, the council agreed to extend the flexibility through the end of 2021.

The U-Help program offers assistance to people struggling to pay their city utility bills, which include trash pickup, water and sewer charges.

As the pandemic stretches on, the number of people who have fallen behind on the utility bills continues to grow.

When city officials first introduced the proposal to extend the looser eligibility standards in March, they noted that 4,679 of Spokane’s approximately 80,000 utility customers had fallen behind on their bills by at least 90 days or more – a rise of more than 400% compared to the same month in 2020.

Since last March, the U-Help program has offered $204,000 in support to more than 1,500 utility customers.

Utility shutoffs have been suspended statewide through July, but if and when they resume, many customers may already be buried in debt.

The struggle was most concentrated in areas that were poverty hot spots prior to the pandemic, including northeast Spokane, according to maps generated by city officials.

Assistance through the city UHelp is typically about $130, approximately the monthly cost of the average city utility bill. The law adopted Monday does not establish a new limit for how many times a person can receive assistance, it only temporarily relaxes the current standard.

Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners, or SNAP, has agreed to continue to administer the program on the city’s behalf, according to city officials. The best way to access assistance is by calling SNAP directly at 509-456-SNAP. The Salvation Army also administers the program.

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