About 3,800 people have applied so far for the City Council Cares program — a $22 million energy bill relief initiative that was launched at the beginning of this month — though the program has enough funding for 50,000, according to a presentation from Entergy New Orleans to the City Council utility committee on Tuesday.
Through the program, Entergy New Orleans customers who are getting unemployment benefits are eligible to receive $100 in bill credits for up to four months, for a maximum total benefit of $400. Both council members and Entergy officials expressed optimism that awareness of the new program would ramp up over the course of July and August.
Though the program officially launched on July 1, the program was announced in May by utility chairperson Helena Moreno in response to the global coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis. New Orleans also has a moratorium in place for service disconnections due to nonpayment of bills through August.
But as Moreno noted in May, the moratorium only delays disconnections. It doesn’t actually help people dig themselves out of the utility debt they’ve accumulated if they’ve been laid off or are facing reduced wages.
“We recognize that we need to provide much more than a moratorium on shutoffs,” she said at a May meeting.
It’s unclear how many people have fallen into debt with Entergy New Orleans since the pandemic began four months ago. But skyrocketing debt numbers at the Sewerage and Water Board give some indication that the number of impacted customers could be high.
Keeping up with energy bills could become even harder for unemployed people soon. A $600 federal supplement to unemployment benefits is scheduled to end on July 31, lowering Louisiana’s maximum unemployment benefits from $847 a week to just $247.
The City Council Cares program is still new, but so far the biggest issue appears to be raising awareness of the program’s existence. According to a presentation from Entergy New Orleans, only 3,784 people applied for the program in its first ten days — about 7.5 percent of the program’s potential reach.
With $22 million in funding (including $1.1 million for administration costs) to issue $400 grants, the program has enough funding to support more than 50,000 customers, Moreno said in May. On Tuesday, Entergy New Orleans Vice President of Customer Relations Sandra Miller said that the company, so far, was informing people by posting about the program on Facebook and Twitter and by sending out a press release.
The company will also start including information on the program in customers’ paper and email bills. Since many customers haven’t received their July bill yet, that is expected to boost awareness throughout the month.
“We just need to continue to publicize this program and make sure people are aware of it,” Moreno said. “I’m wondering if there’s any room there for any radio ads or any media just if you could look into that so we can continue to get the word out. … Whatever we can do to make sure people are aware. There are so many distractions happening, but this is something that could be very helpful to many Entergy New Orleans customers and to the community as a whole.”
Out of the 3,784 applications, 1,383 were approved and 683 were rejected as ineligible. Another 780 are pending final review. And 938 applications were declined because they needed to include additional information. Miller said the applicants who are denied are free to apply again with the proper documentation.
Miller said that the main two issues leading to rejections or denials were applications from customers outside of Orleans Parish and invalid unemployment verification. The program is only available for Entergy New Orleans customers, distinct from customers of Entergy Louisiana — a separate subsidiary of Entergy Corp. that covers most of the rest of the state.
According to Miller, when the program was first rolled out, applicants could only submit their pandemic unemployment assistance form to verify their unemployment status. She said that because people were submitting other documents, Entergy New Orleans is now also accepting monetary determination forms and benefits/claims statements — documents that unemployment beneficiaries receive from the state’s unemployment office — as verification.
Also on Tuesday, the utility committee advanced a resolution to direct the city to start removing and clearing abandoned payphone booths. The council credited resident Michael Burnside, a regular at City Council meetings, for bringing the issue to their attention. If the resolution is passed by the full council, the city would have 90 days to submit a plan of how to remove the booths, including cost.
Moreno’s chief of staff, Andrew Tuozzolo, said the franchise agreement for the majority of the booths expired last September.
“It’s basically trash on the city’s right-of-way that can be removed,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to make one more small improvement to our neighborhoods.”