As Seattle City Light customers owe nearly $49 million in past due balances, the public utility is seeking its first significant rate increases since the start of the pandemic.

A proposal by City Light to the Seattle City Council asks the city to approve a series of rate increases in 2023 and 2024 to help the agency combat the impacts of inflation and a growing number of connections to service.

Though the rate increase would vary from 1.7%-5.7% based on billing class, the average increase would land around 4.5%, and would cost residential customers around $4 more per month in 2023 and about $5 more on top of that in 2024.

The increases would be lower than pre-pandemic increases — which ranged from 5.4%-5.8% from 2018-20 — but would be the first notable increases after no rate change in 2021 and only a 2.1% increase this year.

“We’ve been doing our best to contain costs and keep our increases low. As part of our pandemic response, we eliminated a planned rate increase in 2021. And we would be kept at minimal in 2022. But you know, the impacts of inflation are real,” City Light Chief Financial Officer Kirsty Grainger said Wednesday.

“These rate increases are really about catching up and making sure that we have sufficient revenue to provide good service for the next couple years,” she added.

Advertising

While the combined added monthly cost to residential customers will be under $10 per month, the uptick hits at a time of unprecedented City Light debt.

Unpaid utility debt in Seattle continues to balloon, a reflection of the long-lasting financial impact of COVID-19 and the ongoing struggle experienced by renters, homeowners and businesses to afford basic needs.

About 9% of Seattle City Light customers and 5% of Seattle Public Utilities customers are in arrears, according to officials — still far above pre-pandemic levels.

“At one point we did mapping across the city, and it was not just concentrated in low-income areas,” said Seattle Public Utilities senior policy adviser Leslie Brinson. “It was just very clear people were struggling across the city.”

Customer debt for Seattle Public Utilities, which primarily serves homeowners and property owners, totaled about $3 million in February 2020, according to spokesperson Jenn Strang. That figure grew to about $15.3 million in December 2021, and now hovers around $17.3 million.

Delinquencies are even higher for City Light, which serves significantly more customers including renters, who tend to have lower incomes than homeowners. Before the pandemic, customer debt totaled about $16.9 million. As of July 31, about 43,000 customers owe roughly $48.9 million.

Advertising

“Before the pandemic, we’ve always offered customers different types of payment arrangements to cover past due debt, but we’ve added a lot more flexibility for customers, allowing them to get some of these balances up,” said Craig Smith, chief customer officer at City Light.

“Our primary concern and emphasis is to have them contact us to maintain service,” Smith said. “If you contact us, we’ll figure out a plan that works for you.”

Officials said they are trying to remain considerate of customers’ financial situation, especially as inflation adds additional pressure to household budgets.

“Kids are going to start school, there’s lots of expenses and stressors our community is facing,” Smith said. “We want to do what we can to help people out.”

Since April, both SCL and Seattle Public Utilities have rolled out repayment plans for residential customers to slowly chip away at unpaid bills over up to three years. State funding to reduce customer debt is also expected to be disbursed soon, Brinson said, and the utility has done broad media outreach in multiple languages to share information about repayment options. Since last year, at least 3,700 City Light customers have received up to $1,000 in emergency utility assistance to pay off unpaid bills. Late fees have also been waived through June 2023.

During the pandemic the city and the state prohibited shutting off power for overdue bills, allowing some customers to mount significant City Light debt.

Advertising

Though the state and city moratoriums have been lifted, Grainger said SCL doesn’t “have any plans to disconnect anyone before the fall.” In the meantime, SCL is imploring customers with past due amounts to take advantage of bill assistance programs for qualified customers and payment plans for past due amounts, which are available to all customers and provide up to three years to repay balances.

City Light has begun to review customers “at highest risk” and plans to send urgent notices by the end of September to those who have yet to make repayment arrangements, according to Smith.

More information on the Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utility’s financial relief plans are available at seattle.gov/utility-bill-help or by calling 206-684-3000.