CU, UW project nearing launch
by RICK NORTON, Associate Editor
Nov 26, 2012 | 1034 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ken Webb
Ken Webb
A new Cleveland Utilities initiative aimed at offering a hand up to families struggling to pay utility bills, as well as housing, medical and other related needs, is nearing its launch.

Beginning this week, CU monthly statements will include a customer newsletter that fully explains the design, and the intent, of “Project Round-Up,” an inaugural partnership between CU and United Way of Bradley County Inc. that earned the blessings of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities last month.

Once all 30,000 electric customers have received the Project Round-Up notice, the utility’s “rounding up” of monthly bills will begin, according to Ken Webb, CU senior vice president and chief financial officer.

Webb, along with CU President and CEO Tom Wheeler, introduced the proposal to board members two months ago when they were authorized to pursue the strategy with United Way. In October, United Way President and CEO Matt Ryerson appeared before the board and offered his nonprofit agency’s endorsement.

Patterned after existing programs offered by other utility companies — including Volunteer Energy Cooperative — Project Round-Up allows customers to have their utility bills “rounded up” to the next dollar. The difference will be placed into a separate account for support to struggling families.

Since last month, United Way has finalized plans with The Caring Place to coordinate the community service initiative through its Neighbors in Need division. The organization already oversees another CU initiative called Project HELP, a thirty-something-year-old assistance program that has struggled over the past few years to meet customer needs.

Under Project Round-Up, the customer donations will be kept in a special CU account and then transfered to The Caring Place for distribution to qualifying families. A Caring Place social worker will determine levels of need through personal interviews. CU’s only role will be to collect the voluntary donations.

Project Round-Up works like this. If a customer’s bill is $35.69, it will be rounded up to $36 on the monthly statement. The 31-cent difference will be placed in the emergency need account provided the customer has not canceled participation.

In the beginning, all CU customers will be signed up as participants; however, it is strictly voluntary. Customers may opt out of Project Round-Up simply by contacting Cleveland Utilities.

Following Tuesday’s late-day session of the CU board, Webb told the Cleveland Daily Banner that so far “only a few” customers have contacted CU to suspend their Project Round-Up participation. He said others will probably follow once the CU newsletter hits mailboxes next week; however, CU is hoping the majority will maintain their participation.

In previous interviews, Webb pointed out that on average Project Round-Up should cost the average Cleveland household about $6 per year. Although numbers have yet to be confirmed, Webb believes just a 50 percent participation by CU customers could raise as much as $100,000 per year.

“[Project Round-Up] is a good fit for all of us,” Webb told board members. He was referring to struggling families, to The Caring Place, to United Way and to Cleveland Utilities.

Webb endorsed United Way’s decision to partner with The Caring Place to provide oversight of the program’s coordination.

“The Caring Place has an excellent reputation in the community,” Webb said. “I’m excited about this process beginning.”

In a previous interview, Ryerson called Project Round-Up “... a volunteer program that could have an amazing impact.”

By design as requested by CU, Project Round-Up will not be limited to utility support nor will it be exclusive only to Cleveland Utilities customers. Of all Project Round-Up donations, 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 also will not be limited just to CU customers. Its assistance will be made available to qualifying applicants in Bradley County, as determined by The Caring Place social workers, who are serviced by utility companies other than CU.

As defined by the Donor Restriction Agreement between United Way and CU, “utilities” will include electricity, heating products or services (gas, wood or other fuels), sewer and water. It will not include telephone nor cable television.

On Oct. 25, Ryerson praised CU for its willingness to reach out to utility subscribers of other area providers.

“They (CU) felt like anybody in this community who is having problems with their utility bills, no matter who their utility provider is, could utilize this service,” Ryerson said. “This is a real tribute to the spirit of this Cleveland Utilities organization and their desire to help people, and not to have an agenda associated with it.”

Under the contract agreement, United Way will provide CU with a semiannual report on the fund expenditures and community impact of the funds, beginning six months after the program’s launch.

Ryerson pointed out Project Round-Up will protect its donors’ dollars by assuring that 100 percent of donations will go directly to serve people in need. The program will include no administrative costs.