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At the most recent regular Village Council meeting on Monday, Dec. 4, Council members gave a first reading to an ordinance that would change enrollment in the round-up program from opt-in to opt-out. (Submitted photo)

Village Council | Utility Round-Up program to be opt-out

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Yellow Springs residents may soon be automatically enrolled in the Village’s Utility Round-Up program — wherein municipal utility customers round up their monthly bill to the nearest dollar, with the additional amount going to help those struggling to pay their bills.

At the most recent regular Village Council meeting on Monday, Dec. 4, Council members gave a first reading to an ordinance that would change enrollment in the round-up program from opt-in to opt-out.

In other words, whereas local residents currently may volunteer — or opt-in — to pay slightly more on their utility bills to help financially precarious residents, the proposed legislation would make it such that utility bill amounts are automatically rounded up to the next highest dollar amount.

For example, if a monthly utility bill for an individual enrolled in the program is $49.75, that amount would be “rounded up” to $50, with the 25 cents being contributed to the program.

Under the proposed ordinance, those who don’t want to participate in the program would have to take their own initiative to opt-out.

“This legislation would help out folks who are in need more than the typical household,” Council President Kevin Stokes said in a Nov. 20 Council meeting. The group has been considering the opt-out plan for the last several meetings. 

Implemented in 2018, the Utility Round-Up program is funded by the YS Community Foundation, individual donations and the monthly contributions from those enrolled. As of this December, the fund has $5,907.56 in it — almost $10,000 less than how much was in it at the end of 2022.

“Suffice it to say, the need is increasing, and the budget — the amount we have in the program — is decreasing,” Stokes said.

Local residents seeking to benefit from the program may fill out an application, and once approved, can receive up to $400 twice a year to help cover utility costs. In previous years, applicants could only receive up to $200 once a year. According to the Village’s website, applicants must be at risk of a utility shut-off — that is, having received a bill that says “delinquent.”

In a memo Village Finance Director Amy Kemper provided to Council, she notes that the Round-Up fund has seen increased applications, but fewer donations in the past few years.

This year alone, there have been 56 applicants to the Round-Up program.

“The passive approach of having folks sign up for the round-up when they open their utility account just is not yielding as much fruit as we had hoped,” Stokes said.

As he noted in his own memo to Council members, which was cosigned by Council member Marianne MacQueen, the Village had hoped in 2018 that over 50% of account holders would enroll. However, according to recent data, fewer than 20% of utility customers contribute to the program.

Beyond increasing participation — thereby increasing the amount of money available to needy residents — Stokes and MacQueen noted several other advantages of switching from opt-in to opt-out. According to them, the automatic enrollment may reduce decision fatigue, insofar as customers won’t need to take “proactive” steps to help others, and it would create a new “social norm” of acting in the “public benefit.”

At Monday’s meeting and in previous meetings, Stokes has insisted that automatic participation in the Round-Up program would have a nominal impact on the amount utility customers would pay each month. Stokes said that if bills can be rounded-up by no more than 99 cents each month, then the maximum amount a utility customer would pay over a year — in addition to their regular bills — would be $11.88.

Despite that amount, Council members acknowledged that some people may not want to donate to the fund, and as such, the opt-out process should be “as easy as possible,” Stokes said. 

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

As for refunds for those who unknowingly paid into the program before they were able to opt-out, Council members agreed that that process should be as easy as possible.

“If somebody in six or eight months says, ‘Woah, I paid $1.20 more and I want that back,’ then we need to have a flexible policy about [returns],” Council member Brian Housh said.

Unanimously, Council members, Interim Village Manager Johnnie Burns and Village Solicitor Amy Blankenship insisted that the Village should aspire for complete transparency and public knowledge about the possible transition from the “opt-in” approach to funding the Utility Round-Up program to an “opt-out” approach. Burns said that upon the possible passage of the ordinance, all utility customers will be notified of the change on their next utility bill.

Should the ordinance pass by Council’s majority vote, utility customers will be automatically enrolled in the Round-Up program by the time the January 2024 utility bills are mailed out at the end of next month.

Council will give a second reading of the ordinance and hold a public hearing on the matter at the next meeting on Monday, Dec. 18. Additional coverage of the Dec. 4 meeting will appear in next week’s issue of the News.

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