The city of Highland will stop providing reimbursement to agencies that help citizens pay their utility bills.
During the Highland City Council meeting on March 5, the council unanimously voted to discontinue the city's utility reimbursement program.
The city started the program to help the needy in 2008. Money from city enterprise funds, such as the electric department, to reimburse organizations, like the Highland Area Christian Service Ministry, St. Vincent DePaul, as well as Helvetia and Saline townships, which help people pay their utilities. Over the last five years, the city has given $172,011 back to these organizations, according to a memo from the city's Director of Finance Kelly Korte.
In January, the council had a discussion, prompted by Korte, to find direction on whether the city should continue the program, exclude the townships because they receive money from tax payers, or discontinue the program altogether. The council advised Korte to draft an ordinance to make townships ineligible for the reimbursement. However, when they were presented with the new ordinance this month, the council changed direction and decided to stop the program altogether.
The conversation about striking the program was reignited by Councilman Aaron Schwarz.
During January council meeting, Schwarz pushed for the council to eliminate the program, saying the city should not be involved in charitable efforts, especially if it is using its enterprise funds to do so.
"I don't think this is something we need to be doing at all," Schwarz said.
Following the discussion in January, Councilman Rick Frey said citizens reached out to him to say they did not think this was the city's responsibility to subsidize these organizations.
"I had mixed feelings on that one from the start. I still have mixed feeling about it," Frey said.
However, Frey said it was also his understanding that the program was meant to be temporary.
Neill Nicolaides said he agreed with Schwarz and Frey's points.
"They can come back and let us know that this really, really hurt," Bellm said.
Helvetia Township Supervisor Judy Schmitt and Saline Township Supervisor Curt Messerli said they were not sure of the direct impact losing the program would have, but they knew it would mean helping less people. The supervisors also agreed that while the economy has improved, the need for utility assistance has not lessened.
Schmitt said that losing the funds would have meant that about nine people would have gone without assistance in December.
Messeerli recently said it will be hard to know the impact of the funding discontinuance until the end of the month, but the city typically provided the township with about $2,500 to $3,000 per year.
St. Vincent DePaul could not be reached for comment. But, In fiscal year ending in 2017, Korte said the organization was reimbursed about $6,197 from the program. In fiscal year ending in 2016, it was about $8,093. In 2015, it was $7,902.
As for HACSM, Executive Director Diane Williams said, on average, the food pantry received about $9,800 in reimbursements from the city annually, but the ministry will keep on with its mission.
"We sort of roll with the punches," Williams said.
Williams also said the organization looks forward to working with the city in the future.
"We are very thankful for the generosity of this program over the past 10 years," she said.
For citizens who are struggling to pay their utility bills, the city provides a budgeted billing program. The plan averages participating citizen’s utility bills throughout the year, so they can have the same utility payment every month, according to City Manager Mark Latham. Interested citizens should contact city hall at 618-654-9891.
Latham also said for those wishing to contribute to other people in need, donations can be made through the city's Good Samaritan program. On each utility bill, there is a line item where donations can be made.