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Only about 1 in 5 low-income Seattle residents is taking advantage of a program that would cut their bills in half for electricity, water, sewage and garbage.

The poor enrollment numbers come at a time when electric rates are scheduled to rise 5 percent a year — not including a 1.5 percent surcharge that City Light may impose by August.

They also come as Seattle Public Utilities has said it will need an almost 5 percent rate increase per year through 2020 to sustain its current level of service.

City leaders and utility officials said they have been trying for several years to make it easier to sign up for the discount and to reach more people who qualify, but with limited success.

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They say language and cultural barriers might be a part of the problem. But some add that the city’s own bureaucracy — three different departments coordinating the utility-discount programs — might also discourage participation.

“We know not everyone who is eligible is taking advantage of the program, but we don’t know all the reasons why,” said City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who has chaired both the council’s City Light Committee and Utilities Committee during the past four years.

County demographers estimate that 65,000 households in the city meet the income requirements of 70 percent of the state median income, or about $59,000 a year for a family of four. Currently, only 14,000 households are participating in the utility-discount program.

City Light has added 10 staffers to step up outreach and marketing, including direct mail, multilingual posters and fliers and identifying seniors who qualify for a county property-tax discount. But only 1,100 new households have enrolled.

The city’s qualifying income is significantly higher than for many state and federal low-income assistance programs that generally require an income below 125 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $29,500.

“A lot of people don’t realize they could qualify for the Seattle program,” said Chaney Kilpatrick-Goodwill, supervisor of utility-assistance programs for the city Human Services Department.

City Light and Seattle Public Utilities contracts with the Human Services Department to screen for eligibility and process the paperwork to sign people up. Both utilities share a customer-service call center and say they refer people struggling with their bills to Human Services.

Utility officials say the human-services department, which also contracts with social-service agencies for a range of other services, including child-care and senior programs, has more experience working with diverse communities and more foreign-language resources.

But at the same time the city tries to enroll more people, state auditors have faulted the program for not adequately documenting that the people who are enrolled actually qualify.

O’Brien said that having three different departments coordinate the program might add to the hurdles facing potential applicants.

“I’m of the philosophy that it may make sense for the utilities to run the discount program themselves,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien and Councilmember Jean Godden, another former Utilities chair, both requested improvements in the past year to the program to reduce a 2012 paperwork backlog of almost three months and to streamline the application process.

Additionally, Godden asked the utilities to extend the eligibility for qualifying seniors from 18 months to three years. She also made the low-income discount retroactive to when a person initially applied, not when their application was approved.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who just took over the Energy Committee (formerly the City Light Committee) said that as the city deals with issues of income inequality and affordability, it should “seriously investigate” the barriers to people signing up.

She also said that a key responsibility of elected officials will be to decide if the requested rate and surcharge hikes are justified and whether business and corporations should pay a larger share than working families.

On Monday, Mayor Ed Murray asked City Light, Seattle Public Utilities and the Human Services Department to report back to him in a month about ways to strengthen the efficiency and effectiveness of the utility-discount program.

“While a living wage is an important piece to addressing the overall affordability crisis we face in this city, it alone is not enough,” Murray said.

Lynn Thompson: or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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