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Originally published Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 6:53 PM

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Corrected version

Revised utility-discount program begins in Seattle

Changes to Seattle’s program will make it easier for the elderly and low-income families to receive reduced rates.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Greenwood resident Ethel Palmer qualifies for Seattle’s utility-discount program, but for a short time the city didn’t think so.

Palmer, 88, maintains a house with her 92-year-old husband. She regularly files her paperwork for the utility program, which cuts participants’ Seattle Public Utilities bills by 50 percent and Seattle City LIght bills by 60 percent.

But last year, she suddenly noticed her bills skyrocket.

The city had lost her application, and she fell out of the program. Palmer had to travel in person to the Seattle Human Services Department, which administers the program, to sort out the mix-up.

Other participants were experiencing similar hassles — or not signing up for the program — andSeattle City Councilmember Jean Godden wanted that to change.

As a result, on Jan. 1 the city,began allowing participants to re-enroll every three years instead of every 18 months and to retroactively apply the discount to the date an application was filed, rather than when it was processed. “We’ve always been interested in having a robust program that will enroll people at a low-income rate,” said Godden, who heads the committee that urged the changes.

Under Seattle’s program, discounted utility rates are available to seniors and residents whose monthly income is 70 percent or less of the state median.

The program was inefficient compared to similar programs in surrounding counties, and only about one-third of eligible residents applied, Godden wrote on her website.

The application is long and complicated. And even after applicants correctly filled it out and submitted it, they often had to wait months to see their rates go down, according to Godden.

Given the difficulty of the application, Godden figured that requiring seniors to file every 18 months seemed excessive, especially because many are on fixed incomes, so their salary — and thus their eligibility — doesn’t change between filing periods.

The Libraries, Utilities and Center Committee sent a letter to Seattle Public Utilities and the Human Services Department in May requesting the changes.

The committee based its recommendations on programs in surrounding counties, including Snohomish, which Godden says is able to process applications within the next 60-day billing cycle, with the discount effective when an application is filed

Seattle’s revised system, with its reduced paperwork, will lower stress for applicants and city employees alike said Michael May, a spokesman for Seattle Public Utilities.

“We expect an improvement in waiting time,” May said. “And the retroactive part, that’s a fairness thing.”

Sarah Freishtat: 206-464-2373 or sfreishtat@seattletimes.com

A previous version of this story incorrectly described the discounts offered to some low-income and elderly utility customers, based on inaccurate information provided by the Seattle Human Services Department website. The correct discounts are 50 percent for Seattle Public Utilities and 60 percent for Seattle City Light.

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