CALEB BOZARD T&D News Intern
The Project Good Neighbor program has been allowing Orangeburg residents to help others in paying utility bills for decades.
Although it is well supported by utility and community officials, a recent downturn in funding may be cause for concern.
Project Good Neighbor began in 1989 and is a partnership between Orangeburg’s Department of Public Utilities and the non-profit Cooperative Church Ministries of Orangeburg (CCMO). The program allows DPU customers to overpay on their utility bills to contribute to the program’s fund.
“Our focus, as directed by our city councils, has always been to provide the lowest possible cost utilities, that are safe and reliable, while returning a modest revenue for maintaining our system,” DPU spokesman Randy Etters said. “We believe Project Good Neighbor is simply a furtherance of that philosophy, and one that we will continue to support in the future.”
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Funds from the bills are given to CCMO, which interviews applicants for the funding and shares it with low-income candidates who struggle to pay their power bills.
“By using CCMO, the funds are distributed by trained staff who understand the needs of the applicants and can keep track of who has previously received assistance,” Etters said. “This is the mechanism we have used since the program’s inception and believe it to be the most effective and transparent way of assisting our community.”
The program has collected more than $1 million in funds since it began, according to Etters, with an average annual collection of $42,000. Last year’s total exceeded $50,000.
“So it is clear the community believes this to be a viable program as it enters its 33rd year,” Etters said.
The program is also a partnership with the City of Orangeburg.
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“Project Good Neighbor is a great program that helps out our residents who are having a tough time financially,” Mayor Michael Butler said. “I, along with members of the City Council, understand that because of the current condition of the economy, there are many people who need a little help right now and this is a way to provide assistance to those who need it.”
Etters said the program is especially important in the winter.
Many houses in Orangeburg are not well insulated, according to CCMO Director Barbara Troy.
The program not only helps with utility bills, but also with funds for buying coal, fuel oil, kerosene, firewood, propane or natural gas, Etters said.
Troy estimated around 200 people have received funds from the program this year alone. She added the group tries to find clients below the poverty line.
“All of our clients are low income,” Troy said. “Some of them are barely making it.”
Troy interviews and approves applicants for the funding. She said many of these clients are behind on their utility bills when they come to CCMO for help.
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“They give them 20 days to pay it, but if you’ve been laid off from your job, or don’t have a job, you’re not gonna make it,” Troy said. “They’re struggling.”
Troy has noticed “a big drop off” in contributions from DPU bills to the funds over the past year.
“We used to get like $1,000 a week. I don’t know when the last time we got $1,000 a week was,” Troy said.
CCMO now gets maybe $200 a week from DPU bills, according to Troy. She believes this is because the current state of the economy has made it more difficult for DPU customers to find extra to give after paying higher prices on food, gas, rent and their own utilities.
“But it’s because of the economy,” Troy said. “People don’t give. I guess they don’t have (much) to give.”
While inflation and higher prices have made it more difficult for DPU customers, Troy said it has also put more pressure on the clients CCMO and Project Good Neighbor are trying to serve.
Troy said she tries to save up the funds so they can accumulate enough to be helpful to the greatest number of people, usually trying to get over $1,000 before distributing.
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Troy said that she has to put a sign up on her door saying CCMO is out of DPU funding about once a month. She said DPU employees sometimes take up a special donation for the programme’s funding, which helps.
“We just try to spread it as wisely as we can,” Troy said.
DPU has seen a decrease in donations this year, but still expects the annual total to be close to the average of the past five years, according to Etters.
He said this decline could be attributed to the economy, the pandemic and “the possibility that we need to reintroduce the project to customers who may not be familiar with its purpose.”
“Our team still very much believes in the importance of this project,” Etters said. “If program changes are needed, I am confident our team will make the best decisions for the health of the program.”
Etters said the total amount of contributions for the year would be evaluated at the end of DPU’s calendar year on Sept. 30.
“We’re just living in some times now,” Troy said. “We’re gonna get through it, because you have to go through it. We’re doing the best we can, but it bothers me when I have to tell people we don’t have money.”
Caleb Bozard is a news intern at The Times and Democrat through the sponsorship of the South Carolina Press Association Foundation. He is a student at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.