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Apr
24
2024
Village Council

Village Council | Utility Round-Up now ‘opt-out’

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At the group’s most recent meeting Monday, Dec. 18, Village Council voted to automatically enroll all municipal utility customers in the Village’s Utility Round-Up program.

First implemented in 2018, the round-up program allows utility customers to round up their monthly bill to the next highest dollar amount, with that added money going to aid those struggling to pay their bills.

Whereas the Utility Round-Up was previously a program villagers could opt into, customers must now opt out if they wish not to participate.

Now, for example, if one remains enrolled in the program, and their utility bill is $45.32, it will be rounded up to $46, with the 68 cents being contributed to the program. That means one will pay no more than $11.88 into the program in any given year.

As previously reported in the News, the Utility Round-Up program was first implemented in 2018 to help village residents at risk of a utility shut-off. After an application is approved, those individuals can receive up to $400 twice a year to help cover utility costs. This year alone, there have been 56 applicants to the round-up program.

Ahead of Monday’s vote, Council members weighed a number of public concerns that had been raised since the group gave the “opt-out” ordinance its first reading at the Dec. 4 Council meeting.

Among those opposing the legislation on ethical grounds was village resident and utility billing clerk Elise Burns.

“The opt-out approach raises ethical questions about individual autonomy and choice,” she said. “It fundamentally alters the nature of voluntary giving by making participation the default, placing the burden on our residents to actively opt out if they choose not to contribute.”

She added that any increase in bills may undermine the supposed altruism of helping financially needy residents.

“While proponents may argue that the impact on monthly bills is nominal, we must acknowledge that any increase, no matter how small, may affect individuals differently based on their financial circumstances,” Burns said.

In a letter she penned to Council prior to Monday’s meeting, Burns also said that, in the past few weeks alone, she and the billing staff have received a number of calls, visits and emails from utility customers with “negative opinions” and who were altogether unfamiliar with the round-up program until recently. She said already more than 30 people have opted-out.

Burns echoed some of the concerns she’s heard about the legality of the ordinance, but those were refuted by Village Solicitor Amy Blankenship who stated that the opt-out system is legally permissible.

“This is not an illegal idea,” Blankenship said. “You can’t, as a Village, exert something over your residents that is a tax — that is beyond your constitutional authority. But this is not a tax. You can opt out of this; you cannot opt out of taxes.”

In the discussion leading up to the vote, Council spent considerable time discussing several timelines: how long Village staffers need to continue notifying utility customers of the change, as well as when the change will go into effect.

Burns asked for more time before adopting the opt-out model.

“I see first-hand what we do,” Burns said on Monday. “People are in need and need these round-up funds, but we need more time to get the message out. I have concerns it’s not getting out as effectively as it could.”

Council members acknowledged the difficulty of communicating municipal changes to local residents, with Council member Carmen Brown saying, “We can’t do anything about people not reading their bills.”

After some back-and-forth, Council ultimately moved forward with the vote. With its approval, the ordinance will take effect in 30 days — that is, the earliest time allowed by law. Burns said that utility customers will be notified of the change in the “message board” on their next utility bill, and that the official “rounding-up” will begin with the bill due on Feb. 15, 2024.

“It’s surprising to me the amount of time this has taken,” said Council President Kevin Stokes, noting that Council had spent the last several meetings weighing in on the matter.

Monday’s vote was 4–1, with Council member Brian Housh casting the lone dissenting vote.

In an email to the News, Housh said his “no” vote was motivated by the negative feedback from Village staff and the dismay he felt over the time spent discussing the matter.

“I have been skeptical of the opt-out from the get-go,” Housh wrote. “I have doubted that it would add much in terms of additional funds, and I think we all understand that our Utility Round-Up program is a small effort — which I totally support and do round-up. That probably does not justify the amount of time we have spent at Council meetings about this issue — not to mention that we need to do much more to [address] gentrification and lack of affordability in Yellow Springs.”

To opt-out and not have their bills “rounded up,” utility customers can go to the Village’s website at yso.com or call the utility office at 937-767-7202.

The next Village Council meeting is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 2, 2024, at 7 p.m., in the John Bryan Community Center.

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One Response to “Village Council | Utility Round-Up now ‘opt-out’”

  1. Laura Curliss says:

    A hidden fee for those not paying attention. I was in and now I’m out.

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