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Utility Discounts and Financial Assistance Programs

This page provides information on the authority of local governments in Washington State to provide utility discounts for low-income customers or people with disabilities, as well as voluntary contributions, conservation discounts, the methods used for qualification, and examples.

It is part of MRSC's series on Utility Billing and Collection, created in partnership with the State Auditor's Office Center for Government Innovation.

COVID-19 Updates

For information specifically related to COVID-19, please see the following resources:

Legal Authority

RCW 35.92.020(5) authorizes cities to "provide assistance to aid low-income persons in connection with services provided under" chapter 35.92 RCW ("Municipal Utilities"), and RCW 35.67.020(5) provides cities the same authority with respect to sewerage services. RCW 36.94.140(4) provides identical authority for counties.

RCW 57.08.014 authorizes water-sewer districts to provide for discounted rates for low-income persons or classes of low-income persons, such as low-income senior citizens or low-income people with disabilities, and requires the districts to provide notice of those rates and how they shift costs to other ratepayers.

Also, RCW 74.38.070 provides authority for cities, counties, public utility districts, and any other municipal corporation or quasi-municipal corporation providing utility services to offer reduced utility rates for low-income senior citizens and other low-income citizens.

Article 8, Sec. 7 of the state constitution permits "gifts" of public funds in "support of the poor and infirm," which has been interpreted by the courts to mean "poor or infirm." See, e.g., Health Care Facilities Authority v. Ray.

Defining Eligibility

Eligibility requirements for low-income and senior low-income assistance are not defined by statute, so agencies are free to define these as they see fit. Some only provide these assistance programs to low-income seniors (see West Richland) while others include persons with disabilities as well, generally defining people with disabilities to be those people who qualify for special parking privileges under RCW 46.16.381 and people who are blind as defined in RCW 74.18.020  (see East Wenatchee).

However, there are a range of definitions. For example, Richland includes individuals with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses, while Chehalis requires proof of disability from the Social Security Administration. Edmonds is one of the few cities that exempts all low-income individuals. In some cases, the utility requires that qualified persons be the head of household and in other cases, there is a restriction on the income level of any co-tenant. To ensure that eligibility determinations are made fairly and uniformly, municipalities’ legislative authorities should establish, by ordinance or resolution, policies or programs that utility staff may follow.

Waiving Connection Fees

RCW 35.92.380 allows cities to waive or delay any connection fees for low-income persons as long as the waiver follows a program established by ordinance. Further, RCW 35.21.305 allows cities to waive electric and gas connection fees for properties purchased by low-income customers from tax-exempt nonprofits.

Conservation Discounts

All municipalities must give a 10% or greater discount on the portion of the rate allocated to surface water to new or remodeled commercial buildings with permissive rainwater harvesting systems. See RCW 35.67.020(3) (cities), RCW 57.08.005(7)(b) (water-sewer districts), and RCW 36.94.140(4) (counties).

Voluntary Contributions

While only water and sewer districts are provided direct statutory authority to solicit voluntary contributions (RCW 57.46.010) it is a common practice among utility providers. Agencies solicit donations from all customers and then funds are funneled through a nonprofit that deems eligibility and disburses funds, with agency oversight. See the Lake Stevens Sewer District below for good examples of a resolution creating the program, an MOU with a nonprofit, eligibility forms, and other resources.

Deferred Payments

Some jurisdictions provide for deferred payments in circumstances of temporary financial difficulties or other hardships (see Bremerton Municipal Code Sec. 15.07.100)

Examples of Financial Assistance Programs

Code Provisions

Applications for Reduced Utility Rates

Voluntary Contribution Utility Assistance Programs

Find more with our custom city website search.

Last Modified: September 01, 2021