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Need help paying your utility bills? Northeast Ohio Sewer District is hosting a fair to provide help

A pile of three utility bills with a calculator, pen and a pair of glasses sitting on top of the paperwork.
The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District is hosting a series of Utility Assistance Resource Fairs for those who need help paying sewer, water, gas and electric bills. The fair is open to all eligible customers of City of Cleveland Division of Water, Cleveland Public Power, Dominion, FirstEnergy and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. The next fair is Saturday, July 15.

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District is hosting a resource fair Saturday morning for those in need of assistance paying sewer, water, electric and gas utility bills.

NEORSD’s Utility Assistance Resource Fair will serve as a one-stop-shop for customers to apply for financial assistance from City of Cleveland Division of Water, Cleveland Public Power, Dominion, FirstEnergy and the sewer district directly.

The sewer district conducted a study in 2021 that found more than 40,000 of their customers were eligible for assistance paying their sewer bill, said Jacqueline Muhammad, senior manager of government & customer relations at NEORSD. But they weren’t applying for aid.

“There were 40,000 people in our service area who were not signed up, but who qualify for at least one of our cost savings programs,” she said. “Our customers who needed assistance with their sewer bill, they also needed assistance with their water bill, with their light bill and with their gas bill.”

Typically, utility customers may have to reach out to utility providers directly for financial assistance or go through social service providers like STEP FORWARD, Community Housing Solutions or CHN Housing Partners for help finding options, Muhammad said.

“The Utility Assistance Resource Fair, however, removes all of the barriers for having to go to multiple utilities or multiple service providers because we have everything in one place under one roof for customers to apply,” she said. “And … not just apply, but to submit all required documentation that goes along with those applications.”

STEP FORWARD, Community Housing Solutions or CHN Housing Partners will also be present at Saturday’s fair.

In 2022, the sewer district hosted six resource fairs and signed up an average of 150 to 200 people for financial assistance per fair, Muhammad said.

NEORSD partnered with Cleveland Heights Mayor Kahlil Seren and University Heights Mayor Michael Brennan. The fair will be held at Cleveland Heights Community Center at 1 Monticello Blvd. in Cleveland Heights from 9 a.m. to noon. Appointments are preferred and can be scheduled by calling 216-881-8247. Walk-ins are accepted from 11 a.m. to noon.

The fair is open to customers regardless of where they live, Muhammad said, as long as they are a customer of one of the utility providers attending the fair.

Attendees will be able to speak with representatives from utility providers directly about their eligibility for assistance or concerns about outstanding bills or disconnection notices, which in some cases can be put on hold, Muhammad said.

“If a customer comes in and they have a disconnection notice, in most cases a ... utility has committed to allowing that customer to be placed on a 30-day hold, or some kind of a hold, pending the additional assistance from one of the service providers,” she said. “The utilities are there to have a conversation with the customer about what they can do as their utility.”

What will the application process look like? Here's what to bring

Customers will first be asked to provide required documentation, including copies of utility bills and proof of household income like paystubs, social security statements or most recent IRS 1040 forms.

To apply for state-led programs, Muhammad recommends bringing copies of IDs, social security cards, birth certificates, supplemental medical insurance and lease agreements for those renting their homes.

“Many of [the utility service providers] are managing discount programs that are through the state of Ohio,” Muhammad said. “For HEEP [Home Energy Assistance Program] and PIPP [Percentage of Income Payment Plan], for example, in order to submit the application … required personal documentation or verification is needed. And so, it's a state requirement for those services.”

The sewer district identified a lack of access to computers, printers and copiers as a potential barrier for eligible applicants, Muhammad said. For this reason, computers, printers and copy machines will be available onsite for customers to use.

After providing the documents, attendees will able to receive applications for as many programs they may be eligible for, Muhammad said. This does mean applicants may have to fill out multiple applications to receive assistance for multiple utilities, but volunteers will be available to help throughout the process.

Eligibility often comes down to the household income, but it can differ depending on the utility provider and the assistance program the customer applies for, Muhammad said. Those looking for information on programs they may be eligible for should call the sewer district at 216-881-8247.

After applications are completed, a verification team will read through the application before handing it directly to the utility service provider representative who will verify it once again.

The service provider will bring the applications back to their office for review, and attendees should expect to see a discounted rate for their utility bills within two billing cycles after the fair, Muhammad said.

“Here at the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, our customer service department calls back and we get a reporting from all service providers,” she said. “We also check in with customers too, who came to the fair, to make sure that they received the services or the assistance that they came to the fair to get.”

If a customer experiences difficulty hearing back about the status of their application, Muhammad recommends reaching out first to the utility service provider but welcomes calls directly to NEORSD if they have trouble getting in contact with the provider.

NEORSD plans to hold four additional resource fairs this year in various Cleveland neighborhoods. The next fair will be on July 29 at 16700 Puritas Avenue in Cleveland. Locations are still being determined for the three remaining fairs, but they will be held on August 26, September 30 and November 4.

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.