Program lets public donate to help pay Provo residents’ utility bills
Courtesy Provo Customer Service
This holiday season, Provo 311, the customer service line for the city’s utility billing department, is teaming up with Community Action Services and Food Bank of Provo to provide people with the opportunity to “give the gift of light” to their neighbors, friends or strangers by paying part of someone’s utility bill. This program is only for Provo residents to receive donations, although anyone can donate.
The Gift of Light program has been ongoing since before Amanda Ercanbrack, director of customer services, started with Provo 311 over 20 years ago. It originally started at Provo Power before Provo 311 was formed, she explained.
The Gift of Light program functions year-round, but for the past few years staff have focused on publicizing it through social media, especially around the holiday season because that is when more people are looking for ways to help. Ercanbrack said this program is “part of the community in Provo. We see so many people that I believe even without the official branding and program, they would still give.” In the last two days, 12 donations have been given, and “there’s really a lot of room to improve that,” she said.
According to Ercanbrack, just this Monday, 120 accounts were scheduled to be disconnected due to nonpayment. “That’s a big deal. So, I love seeing people coming together to help prevent that and keeping the lights on in Provo,” she said.
People can donate to a contribution fund that is collected and distributed to those in need by CASFB, or people can donate to a specific household. To donate to the contribution fund, those who receive bill stubs and pay their utilities through the mail can fill out the section titled “Help Contribution.”
Courtesy Provo Customer Service
Those who do not pay their utilities through the mail can go to Provo 311 in person and donate any amount toward the contribution fund. Ercanbrack recommends donating with cash or check because of a processing fee to use a debit or credit card. There is not currently a way to donate online. Provo 311 is located at City Hall at 445 W. Center St., Suite 140. For additional information, people can call 801-852-6000.
For those wishing to contribute toward a specific person’s utility bill, they must also go into the Provo 311 office to donate the money. Ercanbrack assured they are very careful with privacy laws. “We never give out someone’s personal account information,” she said.
When someone donates to a specific person, they have the option for Provo 311 to send a small greeting card that says, “You’ve received the gift of light,” to notify them that someone contributed to their utility bill. “It’s just a great way to let the community help one another,” Ercanbrack said.
The money Provo 311 receives through the contribution fund donations are given to CASFB to distribute to those in need. Recipients are not chosen based on someone’s lack of payments or their financial situation. Rather, if someone is struggling to pay that month’s utility bill, during any time of the year, Provo 311 will refer them to CASFB to receive help, Ercanbrack explained. Provo 311 also does not give recommendations to those looking to donate; if donors do not have a specific person in mind, they are encouraged to donate to the contribution fund.
Jessica Miller, chief impact officer of CASFB, said the nonprofit accepts applicants who need help with utility payments on a case-by-case basis and will pay up to $300 for the entire year toward their utilities. The money is paid directly to the utility billing company. The funds CASFB has to help those in need depends solely on the amount of donations received through the Gift of Light program. “The more donations that come in, we’re able to help more people. So every donation matters and counts,” Miller said.
When someone applies to receive assistance from CASFB, they are required to meet with the Learning Center assistant for an enrollment session to go through a budget worksheet together. During the session, Miller said, “We advise them on ways that they could lower their expenses or we go over different budgeting principles.”
Ercanbrack said they work with CASFB on the Gift of Light program and refer people to them for help with utility payments because CASFB provides education and other resources that can help the person in need long-term, instead of just giving them one-time assistance needed for that month’s payment.
Miller explained one of these resources is CASFB’s free financial literacy classes, which they recommend to all who apply for assistance. There are four classes and they cover topics in more detail than the initial enrollment session, including budgeting, saving, reducing debt and improving credit. “In addition to providing them with what they need for their utilities that month, we’re also providing them with those financial literacy skills that will help them, so that (going forward) they are able to balance their budget or learn about savings,” she said.
Over the past three years, the Gift of Light program has brought in about $6,000 in donations for CASFB to distribute to those in need. Since the Gift of Light relies on donations, CASFB cannot assist those in need without help from the public. However, they also provide other resources such as food and internet assistance that can help those struggling “stretch their income” so they can make their payments, Miller said.
Ercanbrack said Provo 311 sends two bills, a reminder notice and a final notice for residents’ utility payment, but oftentimes those struggling to pay do not know where to turn for help. “That’s where this program has really been beneficial is just having another resource for people,” she said. “We know times get hard, we know people have temporary setbacks and we never want to turn off someone’s lights. So, any resource we can provide them is ideal.”