The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is being felt by a lot of people in our communities. And federal and state assistance funds are getting aid to OPPD customers who need help with their utility bills.
This summer, the Douglas County Board allocated $2 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to go toward utility bill assistance for county residents. A few months later, OPPD secured an additional $1 million in state CARES funding to help those living outside Douglas County. An agreement with the State of Nebraska and Dollar Energy Fund secured the funds. Dollar Energy Fund manages OPPD’s energy assistance program.
By Nov. 1, OPPD had distributed more than $800,000 of the funding to nearly 3,000 customers. The average benefit was $381.
It is truly a success story, according to Britton Gabel, senior product specialist at OPPD.
“Our customers are accessing the funds and getting the help they need,” he said. “It’s also been great to see that we are serving parts of our area that have not had access to funds before.”
Gabel stressed that customers who have begun the application process should follow through. There is still funding available. And the limit has been increased.
Initially, an applicant could receive a maximum amount of $750. That limit has increased to $1,200. If a customer has already received the previous CARES assistance limit, they can reapply until they hit the new maximum benefit.
Overall, OPPD is seeing an increase in the number of customers who are more than 91 days in arears on their bills. Gabel said that’s where the funding can really help.
“The funding can be used to pay for outstanding or unpaid charges since March forward to the end of the year.”
But CARES funding is not the only assistance customers can access.
OPPD has its own Energy Assistance Program (EAP) managed by Dollar Energy Fund. This partnership allows Dollar Energy Fund to work with a network of community organizations across OPPD’s 13-county service territory to reach those in need. The utility also works with the State of Nebraska to distribute Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds to those who qualify.
The combined total of energy assistance OPPD has issued in 2020 through October totals more than $6.5 million. Here’s how that breaks down:
Gabel estimated that by the end of 2020, the utility could see a 50% increase over 2019 assistance payments. EAP payments have increased an estimated 55%.
Gabel said one way OPPD has reached that number of customers is by launching an electronic, online application.
“If we hadn’t launched that, it would be a big barrier to access,” he said.
Local assistance agencies have seen a big increase in requests lately due to COVID. Having an online application helps customers get through the process so they can quickly get assistance for their utility bills.
Gabel said that application, administered by Dollar Energy Fund, “definitely helped us turn around funds quickly.” The assistance is applied to their account within 10 days of the application being submitted. The current turnaround time, if documentation is complete, is 2.26 days to learn if they are eligible.
OPPD and M.U.D. customers have benefited from quick thinking on the state level. Gabel said he believes the utilities are among the first in the country to get assistance to specifically help customers with energy costs.
“We were ahead of the game in working with our energy assistance partners and M.U.D. to try and secure funding for our customers,” Gabel said.
Since the initial announcement, other utilities within Nebraska have reached out to learn how OPPD has set up their assistance distribution.
The public can help those in need by donating through a Gift of Energy. The program allows anyone to make a payment towards a friend, loved one or neighbor’s OPPD account. The gift can be in any amount. It will be applied to the designated account within two weeks of receiving the application.
Fill out the Gift of Energy form and mail it along with your contribution. Once processed, you will receive an email notification confirming the gift.
The public can also donate to OPPD’s Energy Assistance Program through their bill statement or online.
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