The Long Beach Utilities Department headquarters at 1800 E. Wardlow Road. Photo by Jason Ruiz

A $575,000 pot of money could be authorized Thursday to help Long Beach households who don’t qualify for other assistance programs pay their recent utility bills, which in some cases were hundreds of dollars higher than normal due to a historic spike in the cost of natural gas.

The Long Beach Utilities Commission could vote to release the funds to households who self-certify that they need the financial assistance despite not being eligible for the department’s existing programs, which help low-income households, seniors and those with disabilities or medical conditions pay less for natural gas.

The vote on the $575,000 program comes a week after the commission approved a broader $7.5 million program. When it voted on the issue last week, the commission opted to delay making a decision on letting people self-certify for aid, with some questioning whether the lack of parameters would lead people to game the system.

The proposal on the commission’s Feb. 16 meeting agenda would require account holders to certify they’re in economic need “under penalty of perjury” in order to receive the one-time $100 bill credits—which would be in addition to one-time $45 credits that all residential accounts will receive—that would be offered through the assistance program. This portion of the fund could help about 5,750 households.

“We don’t want to put too many barriers or criteria in place because we know people that might not normally need the help might need it now,” said Lauren Howland, a spokesperson for the department.

Howland acknowledged that the proposal could ultimately change Thursday, when the commission is scheduled to vote on it, but she said the department doesn’t plan to audit individual customers. Still, Howland said adding the threat of penalty of perjury to the forms customers would have to sign “would add a bit more seriousness” to the process.

The relief program was formed by the commission after the City Council asked it to develop one that could help people who might struggle to pay their historically expensive utility bills, which were driven by natural gas prices that spiked by nearly 500% in January from what customers were being charged in November.

City Council members pledged an initial $1.5 million in utility users’ tax revenue, a tax charged to Long Beach customers for using water, electricity, landline telephones and natural gas, which increases as the price charged to customers goes up. A few days later, the city authorized another $6 million of greenhouse gas reduction taxes, also charged to gas customers, to expand the relief program.

The utility users’ tax money would otherwise go to the city’s general fund, while the greenhouse gas reduction gases would otherwise be used to help the city reduce those emissions.

Under the overall relief program, all residential customers are expected to receive a one-time $45 bill credit as soon as their next billing cycle. Low-income seniors and those with disabilities who are signed up for the department’s assistance program by March 31 can qualify for an additional $200. Other low-income households who register for the program can qualify for an additional $150.

The department estimates that about 10,750 of the approximately 145,000 residential accounts it services in Long Beach and Signal Hill will be able to receive additional bill credits outside of the $45 credit.

While the cost of natural gas has dropped by about 66% for February, the department is still cautioning customers to conserve their usage because the price is still high ($1.28 per therm) compared to last year’s prices, which typically fluctuated between 50 cents per therm and $1.13.

To prevent customers facing similar volatility in the future, department officials could also begin negotiations for price hedging mechanisms that could establish a set price for Long Beach customers in future winter months and guard against fluctuations in the market. If the department enters into a deal, the commission could be updated on the set price in the coming months.

The Long Beach Utility Commission is scheduled to meet 9 a.m. Feb. 16 at the Utilities Department headquarters located at 1800 E. Wardlow Road. 

Shutting off heat, delaying repairs: How Long Beach residents are coping with high gas bills 

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.