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City to create aid for utility customers
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It appears likely the city of Covington will be able to put in place a financial assistance program for utility customers struggling to pay their energy bills.

A utility assistance program for the city would likely be similar to Snapping Shoals EMC's Operation Round Up program.

Operation Round Up gives Snapping Shoals customers the option of choosing to have their monthly energy bills rounded up to the next highest dollar amount.

The proceeds from the roundup go into a bank account administered by the Snapping Shoals Electric Trust Board of Directors.

 Funds raised by Operation Round Up are used to help individual families in need and are also distributed to local charities. Decisions on the distribution of proceeds are made by the Board of Directors.

The Covington City Council was briefed on the findings of a special committee formed in October 2007 to look into the possibility of a roundup program during a work session at the end of January.

"We are of the belief that we can put a memo in the bills to opt into a utility assistance program," said City Manager Steve Horton who served on the special committee.

Horton said the council needed to come up with a set of criteria for judging the qualifications of program applicants.

City Attorney Ed Crudup suggested the council consider income levels, age, the number of children and household size when determining an applicant's eligibility to qualify for program assistance.

Councilman Keith Dalton said he believed only Covington utility customers should be eligible to qualify for assistance in paying their energy bills.

Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams said the council should be very careful in devising the criteria for qualifying applicants.

"If we don't dot our 'i's and cross our 't's, we could be up the creek without a paddle," Williams said.

Horton said the city council had two options to weigh: whether to distribute the funds directly or to contract with a third party organization which would handle the disbursement of funds. Horton said there was also the possibility of the council creating a special board of local residents who would consider applications for utility assistance.

Crudup said the committee had to disregard the possibility of contracting with FaithWorks, a local Christian-based ministry which provides emergency financial assistance to families struggling to pay their energy bills, because of the Constitutional requirement of the separation of church and state.

"We need to be very careful in keeping church and state separate," Crudup said.

Speaking on Tuesday, Horton said the committee was looking into the possibility of working with the Heating Energy Assistance Team's Partnership for Community Action.

H.E.A.T. is a 25-year-old organization that helps low-income Georgians pay their energy bills. It is the nation's first statewide fuel fund and depends on donations from corporations, energy suppliers and individuals. In 2007, it distributed $755,000 in energy assistance.

"Obviously, they've done that type of activity for a long time," Horton said. "We just believe that they could provide us with real time criteria for how these programs operate."

Horton said he did not have a timeframe for when the roundup program could go into effect but added he hoped to have more information to present to the council on qualifying criteria at the council's first meeting in March.