CU aids bigger Cleveland, Ohio, utility
by RICK NORTON Associate Editor
Jan 13, 2014 | 875 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print

From one Cleveland to another, it’s a proven fact that public utility customers will help one another when given the chance, and if asked.

That’s the message Cleveland Utilities President and CEO Ken Webb delivered to a giant utility company from a much larger Cleveland that had heard of the resounding success of Project Round-Up.

Webb reported on the interest shown from a Cleveland, Ohio, water system during a recent formal gathering of the Cleveland (Tenn.) Board of Public Utilities.

“I got a call the other day from the Cleveland, Ohio, water system,” Webb briefed the board. He said the large Ohio utility provides water to about 425,000 customers.

“They serve many different communities in that area,” Webb explained. “Somehow, they have picked up on the [recent] news article about our Project Round-Up. I don’t know if they subscribe to some kind of service or what, but they were thinking about implementing the same type of program. So, they had some questions for us.”

Those inquiries were made by the Ohio utility, and answered by its Tennessee counterpart, in a conference call late last week.

“The call went very well,” Webb said Saturday. “Paula Wills (who leads CU customer service) and I talked with them about several issues regarding both the implementation of a project like Round-Up and also about administrative issues after the program is up and going.”

Webb said the Cleveland, Ohio, utility was “... particularly interested in the average amounts of assistance given to participants and the percentage of customers we have that are participating. We talked with them for over 20 minutes so there was ample time for them to ask questions and us to answer.”

Webb pointed out the Ohio company covers a much larger territory than Cleveland Utilities.

“They are dealing with a much larger service area so they are researching how, if they implement the program, they can distribute the funds over the whole area in a fair way,” Webb said.

Webb pointed out the conference call ended with Cleveland Utilities offering further assistance, as needed, in helping the Ohio company to develop a similar program. He said CU’s assistance to its Ohio counterpart is a further extension of the willingness by Cleveland Utilities customers to support Project Round-Up.

A public assistance program, Project Round-Up is now entering its second year. The initiative, which launched in late December 2012, provides utility payments and rent assistance for struggling Bradley County families on the brink of financial collapse.

Originated and coordinated by Cleveland Utilities, the program’s emergency fund donations are transfered to The Caring Place whose social workers interview and counsel with families in need, and they oversee the distribution of funds that are earmarked for utility help and rent assistance. However, Project Round-Up is made possible by Cleveland Utilities customers who agree to have their monthly bills “rounded up” to the nearest dollar amount.

On average, CU customers who participate in Project Round-Up are donating about 51 cents per month, or about $6 per year, to keep the initiative operating.

In the CU board’s December session, Webb gave full credit for Project Round-Up to those who are making it work — the utility’s customers.

“The success of this program is not Cleveland Utilities’ success,” Webb reported then. “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.”

As of late December, some 81 percent of CU’s 32,000 electric customers continued to embrace Project Round-Up, and the goodwill and humanitarian outreach that it is promoting within the CU service territory. The program is voluntary, a point that Webb makes in every update.

“If someone does not want to participate, they are more than welcome to contact us and we will take them off the program,” he said.

Project Round-Up’s overwhelming approval rating has pleasantly surprised even Cleveland Utilities, but officials felt all along that its merit had the potential for catching the eye of area residents who understand that need does exist in the Cleveland and Bradley County community.

In its birth, Project Round-Up was forecast to bring in initially — and hopefully — about $100,000 per year, but after the first full year (which included mostly 2013), customer support had reached $174,597.42.

Through Nov. 22, 2013, disbursements to families in need totaled $152,892.78, leaving at the time an available balance of $21,704.64. By that time, Project Round-Up had provided full or partial utility payments to 629 families, representing a total of $126,703.17. For the same period, the program provided rent assistance to 98 families, for a total of $26,189.61.

“This program has been very successful,” Webb told the CU board in December. “The average rounded-up amount, when we first started talking about this ... our assumption was that it would be 50 cents. It has been 50.6 cents.”

Here’s how Project Round-Up works. If a CU 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.

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.

Of the interest by the Cleveland, Ohio, water system in the operation of Project Round-Up, Webb again credited the willingness to help others by Cleveland Utilities customers. This was a key part of his discussion with the Ohio company representatives.

“They were really excited about implementing something very similar,” Webb said of the Ohio utility.

During his report to the CU board at the recent session, Webb looked to Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland — who represents the Cleveland City Council on the board — and stressed, “So mayor, here’s a chance to help out another Cleveland. We thought you’d be interested in knowing that.”

Of Project Round-Up’s positive impact on Cleveland and Bradley County, Rowland joined Webb in crediting Cleveland Utilities customers.

And of Cleveland, Tennessee’s outreach to the community’s brethren in Cleveland, Ohio, the mayor described it as yet another factor in the tagging of the smaller Cleveland as “The City With Spirit.”