Los Alamos County Utilities Assistance Needs Real Change

Los Alamos

Utilities assistance is not glamorous, but it matters, especially when rates are increasing nationwide and in Los Alamos.  Our local, donation-based Utilities Assistance Program (UAP) is a good start, but it is underused by people who qualify, and donations have decreased in the last few years for a variety of reasons.  On Wednesday, July 19 the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) will consider modifications to the program that are wholly inadequate to the needs of the community.  

This LTE asks the community for two possible actions: 

1) email BPU bpu@lacnm.us and request they implement real changes to make the UAP more effective and accessible, and 2) if you are able, donate to the fund and encourage others in your network to do the same.  Click here then scroll down to the “donate” button.*  

When faced with the difficult choice to raise rates earlier this year, which they did, members of BPU rightfully expressed concern about the impact on people with lower- and middle-incomes.  In May, I emailed BPU a list of possible changes that might help offset those difficulties.  I then gave public comment at the June 9 work session ahead of a staff presentation.  During the discussion, it seemed that Board members also wanted to see substantive updates that would make the program more effective and more accessible. Unfortunately, Wednesday’s proposal includes no policy changes whatsoever.  Rather, it only offers a very small increase to the minimum assistance provided.  This is disappointing, to say the least.  An extra $13/month maximum for people already using the assistance program will not solve the systemic issue: the program is not serving many of the people who qualify for its help.     

BPU should reject the proposal out of hand and send it back to staff with instructions to bring back language to implement meaningful changes.  What changes?  That’s for BPU to decide, but here’s some low-hanging fruit that warrants discussion.

 —Accept a letter from New Mexico Income Support Division confirming receipt of individual state benefits for proof of income.  The state’s income requirements for adults participating in support programs (TANF, SNAP, Medicaid, etc.) are lower than the income limit for UAP except for outliers in households with six or more people.  The state extensively vets applications and requires yearly renewals, so they’ve already done the work of verifying income for this subset of residents.  It makes no sense to repeat the state’s work for this subset of applicants and would remove one barrier to access. 

Expand year-round assistance to anyone who qualifies for the program.  Right now, the program defaults to Oct 1 – Mar 31, and year-round assistance is only available for people over age 65 and people who receive Supplemental Security Income.  The amount of support is tied to the amount of the bill: up to 30% not to exceed $138/month.  An average bill less than $460 does not qualify for the full amount anyway.  If someone’s bill drops in July, assistance will drop with it.  Real life is that someone who needs help in December almost certainly needs help in July, and our program should reflect that. 

Simplify verification documents.  The current and proposed program rule states that “the Department will verify income levels by requesting copies of tax returns, pay stubs, or other suitable documentation.”  That seems reasonable enough.  However, the cognito form application states “Previous year’s tax return +2 recent monthly bank statements; OR All recent income documents for persons age 18 or older residing in the household (Income = wages, social security, retirement/pension/stock distributions, unemployment, child support, alimony, rental income, tips, grants, and monetary gifts/inheritance, etc.).”  Taxes or paystubs, as stated in GR 18-01, should suffice, and we need BPU to clarify their intent.     

The program would benefit from other changes, as well, but these three items would be a good start and would show BPU’s intent to meaningfully help people in our community who live one emergency away from financial disaster.  I encourage everyone with an interest in this issue to email bpu@lacnm.us and/or attend the BPU meeting at 5:30pm on Wednesday, July 19, 2023.  The meeting is held in Council Chambers or you can attend on Zoom: https://us06web.zoom.us/j/88515885437.  

*Since dwindling balance of the utilities assistance fund is now a concern, while you’re emailing, community members might ask why the weekly County Line Newsletter includes info about current county hiring needs but not a regular ask for donations to the UAP.  Donate here.  If you want to donate but cannot find a way to do so easily, email bpu@lacnm.us, and tell them that, too.