Unalaska City Council Authorizes CARES Act Funds For Residential Utility Credit
About 450 households in Unalaska will be receiving a utility credit through the end of the year.
On Sept. 22, the Unalaska City Council approved the credit to certain residential utility customers in the amount of $2,070, which will be issued through monthly credits of $690 in September, October, and November.
The first credit will show up on the September usage bill, which customers will receive in early October, according to Jim Sharpe, interim finance director for the city.
"We determined that the average residential utility bill was $230 a month," Sharpe said. "We presented the City Council with a few options, and they elected to [cover] 100 percent of the average utility bill over a nine-month period. The nine-month period is essentially April through December."
The credit program is for PCE-eligible residential utility customers in Unalaska who were financially impacted by COVID-19 and the city's "stay at home" and "hunker down" orders earlier in the year. PCE is the state's Power Cost Equalization program, and provides economic assistance to residential customers of rural electric utilities, who might pay three to five times more for electricity than their neighbors in more urban areas of the state.
Sharpe said if a residential account receives the PCE credit, the account will also receive the city's CARES credit.
"We wanted to be able to provide some level of assistance to city residents, with the premise behind it being that when folks were asked to stay home and hunker down, there would have been an increase in their utility bills," he said. "And also knowing that this type of a credit program will allow them to use those funds for other purposes — like if they had a shortcoming in earnings — to help them offset some of those other costs associated with the coronavirus."
The utility credit program is made possible by the federal CARES Act funds the city began receiving earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In July, the City Council voted to allocate 40 percent of the city's $13.4 million share of CARES Act funding to grants to support local businesses and nonprofits, 50 percent towards the city's response and prevention of the coronavirus, and the remaining 10 percent to be set aside to use for additional grants and community support, should the need arise.
Councilors granted the majority of the $5,381,580.80 (40%) allocation to nearly 100 essential and non-essential businesses — as well as local nonprofit organizations — impacted by the pandemic over the summer.
Sharpe said the estimated amount the city will spend on the utility credit program is about $925,000, but it could be a little more or a little less depending on the number of PCE-eligible customers, which fluctuates on a monthly basis.
He said the program will use the remainder of the CARES funding allocated for local businesses and nonprofits, and will leave approximately $700,000 in the 10 percent portion that's currently set aside for additional community support efforts.
Councilmembers also discussed a similar resolution for other citizens that have likewise been affected by COVID-19, but do not pay utilities directly — meaning their utilities are included in their rent, or are otherwise provided. According to Sharpe, officials wanted to utilize a credit program as opposed to issuing checks, primarily due to the "administrative burden" of vetting potential recipients and writing the checks.
"We did discuss the idea of providing some level of credit, but it would be to the landlord, as opposed to the tenants," said Sharpe. "And what we struggled with was trying to determine how to administer that, and we couldn't come up with a program that we felt would assure that the credit [to the landlord] would then flow back to the tenant. So there's a lot to consider, and we felt that the best plan would be to provide the credit to residents that were PCE-eligible customers within the city."
Sharpe said internally, city officials have discussed various ways to use the city's remaining CARES Act funds, but that they haven't settled on anything yet.
The city must spend the remainder of the federal grant by December 30.