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Utility bills spark upset

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Out of the village’s 2,200 households, almost 10 percent, or about 200, received letters this month warning of an impending utilities shut-off if the bill is not paid. While most who receive the letter will pay, about 25 households that did not pay in January will likely have their utilities turned off by the end of this month.

According to Village Assistant Manager/Finance Director Melissa Dodd this week, the number of both shut-off letters and actual shut-offs has remained constant during the four years she has worked for Village government, even though during that time the Village has increased utility fees significantly.

“I have not seen changes,” Dodd said regarding the number of monthly shut-offs in an interview last week. “But obviously, some have struggled with rate increases.”

Village government did not keep official track of the number of shut-offs following fee increases three years ago, according to Dodd, who added, “We probably should.”

But while Dodd hasn’t seen the numbers of shut-offs change, she has seen more villagers getting upset about their utility bills. Because her office is located in the utility office at the Bryan Center, she hears villagers talking to her staff when they’re paying their bill, and of late that talk has sometimes been heated, especially regarding the higher-than-normal electric bills that followed the January cold snap.

 “In my four years I don’t remember seeing the level of frustration I’m seeing now,” said Dodd, who said she often intervenes in discussions in order to calm people down. “It is hard on people. I see it clearly.”

Police Chief Brian Carlson concurs. His office is just outside the Village utility office, and he too often comes out to mediate difficult conversations.

“It’s been horrific this winter,” he said. “It’s a regular thing. It’s emotional for people.”

Village utility rates are just one aspect of the total picture of the cost of living in Yellow Springs. The topic of that cost of living — which also includes housing prices and taxes, among other factors — has taken center stage in recent years, with many villagers expressing concern about local affordability as the village has become older, richer and whiter. Last year, Village Council introduced affordability as a new Council goal, and the goal remains on Council’s agenda in 2018.

Starting with this article, the News is launching a new series, “Eye on Affordability,” that attempts to provide data and context for this important local conversation. Future articles will cover local demographics, overall cost of living compared to other nearby communities, housing and taxes, among other topics.

 While the affordability topic is multifaceted, the cost of utilities is an important component and one that concerns Village Council member Lisa Kreeger.

“I do hear about this,” she said in a phone interview this week. “I hear that utility costs can be what makes the difference between people continuing to live here, and having to leave.”

Kreeger would like to see Council first gather information regarding the level of local need, then consider potential strategies for addressing that need, although the solution isn’t yet obvious.

“I wish I had more clear answers,” she said.

  Yet while the solution remains unclear, Kreeger believes that Yellow Springs should be able to meet the needs of its residents who are straining to pay their utility bills.

“This is a problem of our community, not just a problem of those who make less money,” she said this week. “This is one we can solve together.”

Recent rate hikes

According to the recently completed Housing Needs Assessment for Yellow Springs, the village contains both a high portion of high-income owner households and a large portion of low-income renter households, with two thirds of renter households earning below $50,000 yearly. About 40 percent of local renter households earn less than $25,000 yearly, according to the study by Bowen National Research of Columbus, which also stated that about 25 percent of local children live in poverty.  

The study also concluded that a high portion of renter-households, about 251, or 43 percent, pay more than 30 percent of their income toward housing costs, which defines them as being housing cost burdened. This situation makes it more difficult to meet expenses in other areas of life, according to the study. And about 214 owner-occupied households, or 18 percent, are also housing-cost burdened.

In recent years, following many years  of static utility fees, Village government imposed significant rate hikes for Village utilities. In 2015, Council voted to raise water rates by 30 percent for each of the following three years, meaning that this year villagers are seeing the last component of a 90 percent increase in water rates.  Much smaller increases of 2.5 percent yearly will take place in years four and five.

The water rate increase means the average village home, assuming usage of about 5,000 gallons per household, now pays $63.40 monthly for water use, as compared to the previous cost of $35.65, according to Dodd this week. This year, the average household pays about $415 more for water than three years ago.

And beginning in 2016, sewer costs rose 15 percent yearly for four years, for an overall hike of 60 percent. The average household in 2019 will pay $661 for sewer use, compared to $483 in 2015, an increase of $178.

The water and sewer rate hikes followed a 2015 study of Village utilities by the Ohio Rural Community Assistance Program, or RCAP, which recommended the increases to pay for the new Village water plant, which was recently completed. 

Electric rates for residential ccustomers were also increased by 13 percent in 2016, following a recommendation from consultant John Courtney. The increase translated into an $8 monthly increase, or about $96 per year, for a household using an average 500 kilowatts of electricity. 

The combined cost of the recent utility rate increases, comparing 2018 costs to those of 2015, totals more than $600 for an average household.

While some villagers have reported struggling with the increased utility bills in recent years, most recently the utility office has seen villagers upset over their electric bills following the January cold snap, during which furnaces went into overdrive to heat local homes.    

A month later, residents may forget how cold it was in January, according to Dodd.

“People’s bills really climbed in January, and the bills are due now,” she said. “This winter was hard on everyone in terms of bills.”

Local stories

One local resident well aware of some villagers’ struggles to pay their utility bills is Chrissy Cruz, who runs The $10 Club. Cruz launched the fund several years ago when a friend had an emergency need. The amount needed was too much for Cruz, a freelance baker, to cover herself, but she figured she could chip in $10, and perhaps others could as well. So she put out a call on Facebook, and within hours raised the needed amount.

The fund has continued, with a focus on filling one-time emergency cash needs, and most often the need centers around utility bills.

“A lot of people are having a hard time with high bills,” Cruz said in an interview last week. 

Last year, the project gave money to 27 families who needed one-time help of between $100 and $200, she said. Some have been older villagers with fixed income, some middle-aged, and some young families.

“It’s people raising kids, working, struggling to get by,” she said.

People contact Cruz via Facebook or phone, after which she runs the request by her board of four local women — Jane Nipper, Wendy Ricks, Kate Anderson and Lindsay Burke. If the board approves, Cruz puts the request on Facebook’s Yellow Springs Discussion Board or Yellow Springs Bulletin Board.

The criteria for getting approval is relatively simple, according to Cruz, who said the board just wants to see that the request is made by someone living in Yellow Springs who is “doing everything they can” to help themselves. 

  The $10 Club has already responded to two families in need this month. In one case, a single mother of two young children needed help paying for utilities after her housemate, who had been splitting the bills, suddenly left.

And in the second situation, a family needed help with utilities after the father needed emergency back surgery. 

Most of those helped by The $10 Club have lived in Yellow Springs a while, according to Cruz, and she hears stories of those who aren’t sure they will continue to live in the village.

“A lot of people who have lived here many years say they have to move because of the high cost of living here. I know some who are in the process of moving,” she said.

One such longtime resident is Patti Purdin, who grew up in the village, moved away after marrying, and then moved back years ago, at one time operating the downtown business No Common Scents.

While Purdin has not received any unusually large utility bills this winter (as she has seen others discuss on Facebook) she has seen an incremental increase in the cost of living in Yellow Springs. And for the first time this month, she had to borrow money to cover her bills.

Purdin describes herself as frugal, and she lives within her budget. Still, she’s challenged by living on the fixed income of Social Security when costs keep going up. She’s aware that she makes many small choices — such as not going out to lunch when she’d like to — because she just can’t afford it.

Recently Purdin decided to leave the village. While initially the high cost of living here sparked her decision to move, she was also influenced by the potential new housing on the Glass Farm, which abuts her property and which she does not welcome. When the health needs of her mother, who lives in Florida, became more pronounced, Purdin opted to move closer. She will sell her house to a family member, and hopes to leave by May.

In a few years she woud like to be back in the area, she said. But she won’t be living in Yellow Springs.

“This is home,” she said. “But I won’t live here. The costs keep going up and my income does not.”

Options for help

Villagers need to be aware that there are options for help with utility bills, according to Dodd. First, the utility staff will work with villagers who want to make a payment plan to extend payment over several months. While the limit for payment is six months for renters, it can be longer for homeowners.

According to Dodd, the criteria for making a payment plan is mainly that the villagers involved agree to the plan.

“I’m the one who has to approve the plan, and I always approve it,” she said. “I have no reason to say no.”

Information on making a plan is available on the Village website at yso.com, or at the Utility Office at 767-7202. Village utility employees are Kasee Ault and NathaLee Hutchins. 

Office hours, which until recently were restricted to 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., expanded in January. Now the office is open workdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m..

The Village website also posts eight agencies that “may be able to offer assistance” to those struggling to pay bills, according to the site. Last week, in response to a phone call from the News, a representative from the Community Action Partnership (937-376-7747) in Xenia said that the agency can help any Greene County resident, and that those in need should make contact. Also, a representative from Job and Family Services said that agency has a program, PRC, which could help a person who has received a disconnect notice and has a job and minor children. Applicants need to apply in person to 541 Ledbetter Road in Xenia. And the local nonprofit Starfish, which mainly receives referrals from local churches, is also available for emergency needs, according to co-director Joseph Giardullo this week. Interested persons may call the nonprofit at 937-545-0146.

However, News phone calls indicated that the remaining agencies on the Village website were not able to help Yellow Springs residents. Several, such as St. Vincent De Paul and FISH, were limited to residents of Xenia, Beavercreek or Fairborn, and the United Way does not offer direct service. The phone number for HEAP was not operable.

This week Dodd said the list was assembled by the utility office clerks, and that each agency listed had previously helped a local resident. The agency names will be checked and removed from the Village website if not appropriate, she said.

The Yellow Springs Police Department is restricted from using its Coat Fund for any purpose other than providing winter clothing for children, according to Police Chief Carlson, although he wishes more assistance were available.

Consequently he and United Methodist Church Pastor Rick Jones are in talks about possibly launching some process for helping villagers in financial need.

“I would like to see some kind of emergency fund,” he said.

While many villagers believe the Village has an official policy that it will not turn off utilities during winter, it has no such policy, according to Dodd. However, Village crew members do have an unofficial policy that they try not to turn off electricity if the weather is especially frigid, she said. 

And beyond that practice, it is not uncommon for a Village employee to dip into his or her own pocket to help out people in need, she said.

“The staff we have is incredible. They are such good people,” Dodd said. “When you have the jobs we do and interact with people and hear their stories, we all want to help.”

The winter months are hard on everyone, including those struggling to pay bills and those tasked with making sure those bills are paid. Village utilities staff members dread the middle of each month, when bill payments come due, according to Dodd.

“It’s not fun,” she said. “That time of the month is our least favorite.”

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