If the axiom “actions speak louder than words” truly holds water, then the collective voice of Cleveland Utilities customers is ringing out like a Christmas carol on the popularity of a voluntary 1-year-old emergency assistance program.
Through October, some 81 percent of CU’s 32,000 electric customers continued to embrace “Project Round-Up,” an initiative launched in late 2012 that provides utility payments and rent assistance for struggling Bradley County families on the brink of financial collapse.
“The success of this program is not Cleveland Utilities’ success,” President and CEO Ken Webb said Thursday during a formal session of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities. “It is our customers who have done it. It has been very successful ... and I would like to personally thank the customers who are participating in it.”
The idea behind Project Round-Up is simple. CU customers’ utility bills are rounded up to the nearest dollar each month. This loose change — whose average is 50.6 cents per CU customer per month — is transferred into an emergency account that helps to keep the lights on, and the heat running, for impoverished families. In some cases, Project Round-Up provides rent assistance.
Nothing is mandatory, and this is a point CU has made throughout the program’s first year.
“It’s a voluntary program,” Webb reminded board members. “If someone does not want to participate, they are more than welcome to contact us and we will take them off the program.”
Although 19 percent have opted out within the first year, an overwhelming 81 percent majority has stayed in. Their rounded up change each month has added up to $174,597.42, Webb reported.
“We had estimated that we might get to the $100,000 mark here in the first year,” the CEO pointed out. The numbers speak for themselves and so do the customers, he added. CU customers continue to support Project Round-Up and Webb believes it has everything to do with a community-wide belief of neighbors helping neighbors and serving as their brother’s keeper.
Through Nov. 22, Project Round-Up disbursements totaled $152,892.78, leaving an available balance of $21,704.64.
To date, the emergency assistance project had provided full or partial utility payments to 629 families, representing a total of $126.703.17. For the same period, Project Round-Up has provided rent assistance for 98 families, for a total of $26,189.61.
“This program has been very successful,” Webb repeated. “The average rounded up amount, when we first started talking about this ... our assumption was that it would be 50 cents. It has averaged 50.6 cents.”
“... So you missed it,” CU board member Joe Cate offered with a chuckle.
“Yes, we missed it just a little,” Webb acknowledged with a knowing smile, one that apparently came as much as a “thank you” to CU customers for their belief in Project Round-Up and their willingness to continue supporting it.
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. It is estimated that over a year’s time, the average CU customer will donate about $6 to the fund.
Project Round-Up is operated by CU in a three-way partnership with United Way of Bradley County Inc. and The Caring Place, the latter of which coordinates various food and emergency operations services for Cleveland families in need. Licensed social workers interview all emergency fund applicants to verify need. If approved, utility or rent assistance is provided through the fund. Payment is made directly to utility companies and landlords.
Aid is not limited to just CU customers. Project Round-Up was designed to help Cleveland and Bradley County families who may be serviced by utility companies other than Cleveland Utilities.
The program is not just aimed at making overdue utility payments to CU. Its purpose is to assist struggling local households, whether through rent or utility assistance.
As Project Round-Up enters its second year, its community impact will be tied directly to the level of CU customer participation, Webb said.