Nicole Harvel photo credit

By Bruce Checefsky

Ward 7 Councilwoman Stephanie Howse, Ward 10 Councilman Anthony Hairston, and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) hosted a Utility Assistance Resource Fair to offer eligible customers financial assistance on water, sewer, gas, and electric bills. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, City of Cleveland Division of Water, CPP, Dominion, FirstEnergy, CHN Housing Partners, STEP FORWARD, and Community Housing Solutions were on-site at The East Professional Center on E. 79th St.

Eligible customers signed up for assistance programs, including the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District Affordability Program which provides a 40% reduction on sewer bills, and Crisis Assistance Program which provides up to a $300 credit on sewer bills.

“We are here to help people,” Howse said, crisscrossing the large sports hall where the event took place and greeting residents as she went along.

Constance Haqq, Director of Communications and Community Relations at the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, said that the purpose of hosting the resource fair was to create an opportunity for a one-stop shopping experience where residents can talk to all of the utility companies at one location and submit their applications for financial assistance.

“They might apply for a payment program or get a hold placed on a disconnection notice. We have discount programs for which they can apply,” said Haqq. “They can leave the fair with a complete application and get assistance from the various agencies to take the next step in the process.”

Customers with incomes 250% above the poverty line—about $65,500 annual income for a family of four—are eligible for the sewer program.

The city of Cleveland and NEORSD also offer the Homestead Discount Program, which provides reduced water and sewer rates for people earning $34,500 or less, who are 65 years or older, or permanently disabled. Unlike the affordability programs, Homestead applicants fill out a single application. A note from their doctor is required if the applicant has a disability. “We want the services to reach the people,” Haqq added.

Haqq said the rising cost of the economy, sickness, and unplanned expenses make it difficult for some people to pay their utility bills. The process for assistance is laborious, making it a challenge to apply. “At the fair, we can print supplemental information like birth certificates of everyone in the household and social security cards. We want to make certain that people are qualified for the programs, but we tend to make it onerous for them. We want to create a better balance in our community with fewer barriers.”

Haqq said her staff called the Bureau of Vital Statistics at City Hall and were surprised to find out they were closed at 4 p.m., and checking online, the cost of a single certificate was $25. Multiply that by four or five, or even six people in a household, and the birth certificates alone could cost hundreds of dollars. Add the cost of parking at city hall, and it becomes unaffordable to people struggling to meet ends.

People unable to attend the resource fairs, which will take place around Cleveland throughout the year, can contact the agencies individually. It will take longer if their needs include water, electricity, gas, and sewer as separate entities.

Last year, Ohio utility companies asked state regulators for permission to raise home gas, electric, and water costs. The investor-owned utilities were asking for an additional $400 million in yearly charges. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio [PUCO] accepted a rate settlement agreement in October, with prices expected to increase in 2023.