The Detroit Lakes City Council has approved the use of a portion of the city's federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to develop a grant program for helping local residents get current on their delinquent utility accounts.

Council members unanimously passed a motion Monday night that would allocate up to $22,500 in CARES Act funding for the new program, which would be developed in partnership with Mahube-Otwa Community Action. The aim of the program would be to bring the city's delinquent utility accounts current by Nov. 15 — the earliest date that new funding from the federal Low Income Heat Energy Assistance Program would become available through Mahube.

According to Vernell Roberts, general manager of Detroit Lakes Public Utilities, the city currently has $10,500 in delinquent utility accounts on the books, for electric usage only.

Detroit Lakes Public Utilities General Manager Vernell Roberts
Detroit Lakes Public Utilities General Manager Vernell Roberts

"Looking at the accounts that are delinquent, it is estimated that the balance will increase by approximately $4,000 per month," Roberts wrote in a memo, dated Aug. 4, which was addressed to City Administrator Kelcey Klemm and members of the city's Finance Committee. "This would require an additional $12,000 for the months of August, September and October."

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According to Roberts, the program would be open to DLPU customers that are delinquent on their utility bill and meet the income guidelines set annually by the Minnesota Department of Commerce for energy assistance.

Customers who already receive LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) assistance from the federal government would receive the bulk of the grant funding, Roberts said, but added, "We are working with Mahube to possibly open the window a little wider for customers impacted by COVID-19. Those discussions have yet to be had with Mahube ... we need to make sure we follow established guidelines with disbursement of the funds."

Those who would like to receive assistance through this program are encouraged to contact either Mahube's Detroit Lakes office or the city's public utilities department.

Roberts said that Detroit Lakes Public Utilities has worked with Mahube-Otwa for several years to provide energy assistance and crisis funds for qualifying local residents. "This was very helpful for customers that found themselves in a financial hardship this year due to COVID-19," he wrote. "However, all funding requests (through LIHEAP) needed to be into Mahube by July 1 and funds released to the utilities by July 15.

"Even with the energy assistance Mahube provides, we still have customers that became delinquent during this period," Roberts wrote. "The next funding opportunity to receive energy assistance will likely start in November, and this leaves a significant gap for people needing assistance."

Roberts noted in the memo that the new program would not extend beyond the time frame allowed for CARES Act funding, nor would it replace existing or future energy assistance programs offered through Mahube-Otwa. He said that the grant funds could become available as early as next week.

"There is a limited amount of funds available," he said on Tuesday. "This program is being set up to help those in a delinquent state today. Future delinquent bills may not get approved or funded. It is really important that those that need help contact our utility billing department to set up payment programs to stay current. This program is for Detroit Lakes utility customers only."

Also at Monday night's meeting, the council voted to approve a motion authorizing a CARES Act election municipality agreement with Becker County. The agreement would allow the city to use CARES Act funding from the county to pay for expenses related to both the Aug. 11 election primary and the Nov. 3 general election, where several federal offices are on the ballot.

Alderman Madalyn Sukke, who chairs the city's Finance Committee, said that there may be a special City Council meeting set for later in the month to discuss additional funding opportunities provided via the CARES Act. Detroit Lakes received just under $714,000 in federal funds from the act, which was approved by Congress in March.

According to Detroit Lakes City Finance Officer Heidi Ostlie, CARES funds allocated to the city must be spent by Nov. 15; if they aren’t then they need to be sent on to Becker County, which has until Dec. 30 to use the remaining funds.

Please fill out U.S. Census forms by Sept. 30

Monday night's meeting of the Detroit Lakes City Council also featured a presentation on the 2020 U.S. Census by Vicki Clayton of the West Central Minnesota Partnership.

According to Clayton, Becker County has fallen significantly behind other counties in the region when it comes to census completion rates. Its current completion rate is 54.3%, or just slightly above half of all county households. The response rate for Detroit Lakes city residents is significantly higher, at 63.3%, but that is still substantially lower than the statewide response rate of 72.3%.

"A lot of federal funding comes from the (census) count," she said — roughly $2,800 per person counted, per year — yet only about 65-70% of all U.S. residents complete the form.

Over a 10-year period, that $2,800 adds up to $28,000 per person not counted; for a four-person household, that would come up to $112,000. "That's a lot of funding lost," she added.

Another significant factor that is determined by the decennial (once every 10 years) U.S. census is representation in the U.S. Congress, Clayton noted.

Minnesota came within 8,000 people counted in the 2010 U.S. Census of losing one of its eight congressional districts, Clayton said. While that seems like a lot, she said, it really isn't when you consider that the state's population was 5.6 million at that time.

Clayton added that there is still plenty of time for those who have not completed their census forms to do so by the mandated Sept. 30 deadline — and they can still do so entirely online, at https://2020census.gov. She said that the most recent census form has been greatly simplified from previous years, with just nine questions to fill out, and can be completed in just a few minutes.

"A lot depends on those nine questions," she said.