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Tallahassee Residents Help Neighbors Get Utility Assistance

Two women knock on a door.
Valerie Crowder
Shelby Green (left) and Rahni Wright stick printed handouts informing people of available assistance on doors in the Providence Neighborhood on the city's South Side on Sunday, June 27, 2021.

Tallahassee neighborhood volunteers have been going door to door, since April, to let people know that they can still get help paying their past-due utility bills.

Shelby Green, 24, has knocked on about 300 doors since she compiled a list of residents who were at risk of having their lights turned off after the city ended a moratorium on utility shut-offs.

Green says many residents she’s met while canvassing weren’t aware they could get help paying overdue bills.

“A few people canvassing — it’s not enough to get the word out there," Green said. "I have been asking the city, a lot, to either put out a press release or some public notice or even create a website that just says, ‘Hey — if you’re behind, here’s a FAQ. This is what you can do if you need the information or steps to do so.’ But instead, they’re just encouraging people to call.”

A citywide moratorium on utility shut-offs put in place last March ended this April. City commissioners voted to end the pause on disconnections after the city had racked up nearly $9 million in unpaid bills.

After the moratorium ended, thousands were disconnected, city data shows. People were required to pay back charges accrued during the pause. Many of the city's utility disconnects were due to nonpayment, while others were a result of people simply moving, said James Barnes, the city's chief customer services operator.

Leon County residents could apply for rent and utility assistance through Leon Cares immediately after the moratorium ended. But that program has spent all of its funding and is no longer taking applications.

Residents can still apply for federal assistance through the state. Our Florida processes applications for rental and utility assistance. The aid may cover up to the last 12 months of someone's past-due utility bill and three months into the future.

Barnes says those who need assistance may also call the city's utility department for information about other options, including setting up a payment plan and getting help through the city's Project Share program.

"I’m very confident in saying there are many portals for customers to get assistance at this time," Barnes said.

City staff haven't been directly notifying people about other assistance that's available, Barnes said. But neighborhood volunteers are filling in the void.

Rahni Wright is a member of the Providence Neighborhood Association's leadership team. She's also gone door to door to let people know about assistance that's available. The work is important because helping people avoid having their utilities shut off helps keep people in their homes.

"We want to make sure we keep our people who live here, give them a little bit of stability, the parents and the children," she said. "We want to make sure they stay in the community, where they have access to buses every single day.”

City commissioners will meet for the last time until September on Wednesday at 3 p.m. At the meeting, the city's utility service will receive a national public service award for its clean power plan, the moratorium on utility shut-offs during the pandemic and programs to help low-income residents afford payments.

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.