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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.

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 Washington 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." For example, see Health Care Facilities Authority v. Ray (1980).

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, while others include people with disabilities as well, generally defining people with disabilities to be those people who qualify for special parking privileges under chapter 46.19 RCW (formerly RCW 46.16.381) and people who are blind as defined in RCW 74.18.020.

However, there are a range of definitions. Some jurisdictions may include individuals with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses, while others require proof of disability from the Social Security Administration. Some may even exempt all low-income individuals. In some cases, the utility requires that qualified persons be the head of household, while in other cases there may be a restriction on the income level of any co-tenant.

To ensure that eligibility determinations are made fairly and uniformly, the utility's legislative body should establish, by ordinance or resolution, policies or programs for utility staff to follow. See the examples below.

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. Utilities must give consideration for further rate reductions in excess of 10% depending on the amount of rainwater harvested.

See RCW 35.67.020(3) (cities), RCW 57.08.005(7)(b) (water-sewer districts), and RCW 36.94.140(3) (counties).

Voluntary Contributions

While only water and sewer districts (RCW 57.46.010) and public utility districts (RCW 54.52.010) are provided direct statutory authority to solicit voluntary contributions, 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 examples below.

Deferred Payments

Some jurisdictions provide for deferred payments in circumstances of temporary financial difficulties or other hardships.

Examples of Financial Assistance Programs

Below are selected examples of local utility financial assistance programs in Washington State.

Code Provisions

Applications for Reduced Utility Rates

Voluntary Contribution Utility Assistance Programs

Last Modified: March 24, 2023