CU customers embrace Project Round-Up
by RICK NORTON, Associate Editor
Jul 29, 2013 | 664 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Almost seven months into its launch, a Cleveland Utilities initiative aimed at helping area families who are on the brink of financial collapse has already exceeded original hopes for a year’s worth of donations.

Project Round-Up, a voluntary assistance program made possible by the people (CU customers) for the people (families in need) has now totaled $108,672.94 as of June 30, according to Ken Webb, senior vice president and CFO for the local utility.

Even more promising is that 85 percent of the utility’s customer base continues to embrace the family-friendly program that is operated in partnership with United Way of Bradley County Inc. and The Caring Place, a Cleveland nonprofit that operates a community food bank and an array of social services such as emergency aid.

Project Round-Up was launched in mid-December 2012 and has completed its first six months of operation, Webb reported in a recent session of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities. In that time, the vast majority of CU customers have remained with the program and The Caring Place has expanded its social work staff in order to keep up with the needs of Cleveland and Bradley County families who are struggling financially due to unexpected loss of jobs, underemployment, catastrophic illness or other unforeseen emergencies.

“I really felt the way we were looking at this was if we got $100,000 in a year that it would be a successful program,” Webb told the board. “But I’m very happy to report that about 6 1/2 months into it, we’ve exceeded $100,000.”

Webb, who earlier this month was named by the board as CU’s next president and CEO to succeed the retiring Tom Wheeler, said he is receiving daily updates from the utility’s collections personnel on the favorable impact of the program.

CU board member Chari Buckner asked if the utility has seen any difference in the number of utility disconnections due to lack of payment. Webb said those statistics aren’t currently available, but that the paperwork alone is telling employees that Project Round-Up is having an effect on local families who need help the most.

“[Our folks] in collections are telling me that on a daily basis they are aware of people who are receiving assistance,” Webb said.

He later pointed out, “It has to be making a difference,” if for no other reason than the fact that The Caring Place social workers are counseling with families in a more timely manner.

“I really think it stands to do a lot of good in the community,” Webb said.

As of the June 13 billing cycle, CU had “rounded up” the bill on 32,990 billing statements, out of a total of 38,943 statements that were sent out. Over the past few months, amounts paid to United Way and which were then transfered to The Caring Place, included $16,704.79 on July 18; $17,002.21 on June 20; $17,183.71 on May 16; and $17,292.06 on April 18.

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

Assistance is provided for legitimate family needs once they are determined by Caring Place social workers who conduct personal interviews to determine eligibility level of clients.

The program itself 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 $6 to $7 per year.

In his recent report, Webb told CU board members the average “rounded up” amount per customer so far is slightly more than 50 cents per month.

In most cases, Project Round-Up is helping area families with utility payments and rent assistance. This 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.