Citing layoffs, furloughs and economic disaster, Lewisburg Electric System leaders have decided to provide a safety net for their customers.
The LES Board of directors' voted Monday night to spend up to $12,000 on financially strapped customers' electric bills. Now, $3,000 of the $12,000 is available monthly until May.
That's in addition to $3,454 approved a month ago to participate in a federal matching program, according to discussion at the LES Bord meeting chaired by City Councilman Phil Sanders.
The unanimous decision by the LES Board came within an hour of a vote by the Marshall County Commission to appropriate $4,000 from reserves to obtain $2 of federal money for heating bills for every $1 provided locally.
Both city and county panels made their decisions with plans to revisit the situation in a few months to see if more help is needed.
Both panels are acting to take advantage of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP.) It received funds authorized by Congress last fall. Locally, the program is administered by the South Central Human Resources Agency (SCHRA) office across the street from the Marshall County Highway Department's garage and offices on Old Columbia Pike. The SCHRA phone number is 359-6393.
Meanwhile, discussion at the Lewisburg Gas Department Board meeting Monday showed support for a request to channel money contributed to its Volunteer Gas Fund toward LIHEAP so gas customers' who pay more than they owe will have those dollars tripled. The LGD Board met Monday afternoon with Cathy Hayes, community services director for the SCHRA program headquartered in Fayetteville, explaining that it has a separate panel to deal with spending the Volunteer Gas Fund.
Gov. Phil Bredesen announced last month that Tennessee received $80 million from the U.S. Department of Human Services. Hayes has said Marshall County's share is nearly $127,800, but that the two-for-one match program is funded at about $20,730 for Marshall County. That means if the local community raises $10,360, there would be $31,080 available to pay utility bills for eligible residents of Marshall County.
Since the LES decision on Monday could make $12,000 available, the board was asked about the matching program's goal of $10,360.
"If we give $1 that can't be matched," Board member Eddie Tears said, "it's still needed."
LES Board member Joe Moss noted that LGD Board has a separate panel that makes decisions on where the contributions to its Volunteer Gas Fund go, and so he recommended that a similar panel be created for LES. The LES Board agreed and authorized system Manager Richard Turner to consult with the Ministerial Association for members of such an advisory panel.
As circumstances around the LIHEAP funding emerged since Bredesen's announcement, leaders at the Duck River Electric Membership Corp. have been turning to their advisory board because that electric co-op has a method for customers to contribute by adding money in $1 amounts to their electric bill. Hayes anticipated reports from DREMC leaders this week.
Contributions by LES are added to $2,500 contributed by Lewisburg's five council members who have a discretionary fund from the annual budget. It was created several years ago in conjunction with requests from a now former councilman who's provided services for constituents.
As a councilman, Sanders, the chairman of the LES Board, joined with Councilmen Robin Minor, Odie Whitehead, Hershel Davis and Councilwoman Quinn Brandon to appropriate $500 of their discretionary funds to LES to triple their combined contribution of $2,500.
"We are seeing a lot of people needing help," LGD Manager Patricia Morgan said Monday evening. "It's not just poor people. It's people who have been laid off and they have not received their unemployment check."
Craig Blackwell, spokesman for the gas department said, "Unemployment is backed up two to three weeks."
He joined the gas board meeting after speaking with a woman who'd just been laid off at CKNA.
"We are seeing a different set of people" who are having trouble with their utility bills, Blackwell said.
Only a few gas customers have had their service cut off, he said. Usually it's because the customer has moved. Apparently many customers are approaching the utility before they've faced overdue bills.
County Commissioner Mickey King presented the County Budget Committee recommendation to fund LIHEAP at $10,364 and then moved to amend it as suggested by the Budget Committee. Its members suggested making a contribution now and looking at the situation again later.
Commissioner Scottie Poarch voted against the amendment and moved to have the commission revert to the original recommendation received by the Budget Committee from County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett.
"Everybody is aware of factories closing," Poarch said, also citing reduced working hours for those who still have jobs.
King reminded commissioners of the $2,500 contributed by members of the Lewisburg Council.
"These are the highest electric bills we've seen," Poarch countered.
Examples cited at the LES meeting included home electric bills totaling $849, $621 and $461, information that prompted Tears to say, 'If we really think someone is hurting, we should go ahead."
Commissioner Seth Warf asked King about where the $4,000 would come from and was told county reserves.
Poarch's motion to reset the contribution to the full amount failed on a nine to eight vote. It required 10 votes to pass, according to County Attorney Ginger Shofner.
The motion to appropriate $4,000 passed 17-0.
The Commission's vote was without reservations imposed by Lewisburg's council members who wanted their contribution to benefit their constituents. For that reason the money went to the LES.
Hayes has said that such specifications are possible and that even a church representative has been able to specify where a contribution is spent.
Still more money might be acessed by commissioners as Jimmy Stitt, chairman of the County's Economic and Community Development -- Tourism Committee has said that panel might explore the prospect of appropriating money. The ECD-Tourism Committee's funds are from motel room rent taxes.
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THINGS TO KNOW
People who qualify for unemployment benefits are eligible for LIHEAP assistance. Officials say it's not welfare. It's like unemployment insurance.
The South Central Human Resoures Agency office is at 1572 Old Columbia Highway. The office is led by Julie Belcher. The phone number is 359-6393.
Benefits are based on federal guidelines, so if a household has groceries purchased with Food Stamps, the energy assistance is available.
A household of four people with monthly income of less than $2,208 qualifies for LIHEAP assistance. Annually, that's $26,500. It's not based on history. It's based on current circumstances.
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