Project Round-Up gets customer OK
by RICK NORTON, Associate Editor
Apr 26, 2013 | 764 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cleveland Utilities customers are lending a landslide endorsement to a new initiative aimed at offering a hand up to local families struggling to pay utility bills, as well as making other needed housing, medical and related payments.

Since its launch in late December, 88 percent of CU’s 30,000 customers have remained in Project Round-Up, a voluntary program in which the utility is authorized — by the customers — to round up their monthly utility bills to the next dollar.

Through the March revenue cycle, CU has already received $57,782.23 from participating accounts. This represents an average contribution of only 50 cents per customer per month, according to Ken Webb, senior vice president and chief financial officer.

“This is a very worthwhile program and community participation has been really good,” Webb told members of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities during a formal monthly session Thursday at the training center.

Describing Project Round-Up as being “... very, very successful,” Webb pointed out that to date — at least, through March 29 — the emergency assistance fund has aided 83 Cleveland and Bradley County families with utility assistance. This represents a $20,796.52 investment in local households who are struggling due to hardships like economy-driven layoffs, underemployment, unexpected illnesses and others, Webb explained.

To date, the average amount provided for utility assistance to area families is $250.56, he said.

In addition to those households getting utilities help, another eight families have received rent assistance totaling $2,243.70, representing an average of $280.46.

Families receiving early aid through Project Round-Up did so from contributions that came in during the months of December and January only, Webb explained.

Based on the March numbers, Webb calculates that Project Round-Up’s annualized contribution (that is, the first full year’s worth of donations) could reach $207,504.72, provided the number of voluntary contributors remains stable.

“Based on averages through March with an 80/20 split, some 663 families ‘could’ receive utilities assistance and 148 families ‘could’ receive rent assistance,” Webb explained.

The 80/20 split refers to the pre-determined levels of support, as decided by CU. Using this formula, 80 percent of the funds will be distributed for utility needs and the remaining 20 percent will be set aside for housing, medical and other related expenses.

Project Round-Up was approved by the utility board last fall. It was implemented during the last 10 days of the billing cycle in December.

Designed as a partnership between Cleveland Utilities and United Way of Bradley County, funds donated to Project Round-Up are placed in a special emergency account and are then transferred to The Caring Place. Social workers there are in charge of interviewing local families with legitimate needs and determining their eligibility for Project Round-Up support.

The program works like this. If a Cleveland Utilities customer’s bill is $35.69, it is rounded up to $36 on the monthly statement. In effect, the CU customer has contributed 31 cents (for one month) to the Project Round-Up emergency fund.

Because Project Round-Up is voluntary, any customer who does not wish to participate may opt out by contacting Cleveland Utilities. Estimates show that in any given year, Project Round-Up will cost the average CU customer six to seven dollars per year.

Webb’s original projections were that Project Round-Up could bring in as much as $100,000 per year to help meet area families’ emergency needs. If the level of participation remains stable at, or near, 88 percent, the initiative will have become far more successful than originally hoped.

Every penny and each dollar contributed to Project Round-Up goes straight into the CU emergency fund for transfer to The Caring Place, according to Matt Ryerson, president and CEO of United Way who helped Webb and the local utility to draw up plans for the community program. In a CU board session last November, Ryerson confirmed Project Round-Up will include no overhead nor administrative costs.

Webb’s Project Round-Up update, which he pledged to provide to the CU board on a regular basis, was met with high-charged reaction.

Amid a roar of approval by board members — which was aimed as much as a “thank you” to CU customers for their giving nature — one even offered in the middle of Webb’s report, “Golly!”