Charity is the engine intended to drive the Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water and Sewer Commission’s proposed payment assistance program.
It was originally dubbed a round-up program, as utility customers would round up their bill to the nearest dollar with the difference going to the payment assistance fund.
Since then, the program has evolved. Utility staff say that, if the utility commission approves the program, customers will be able to round up their bills, donate in temporary or long-term regular payments or contribute lump sums to the fund.
“The success of the program will depend on the generosity of the community,” said Jay Sellers, the utility’s administration director. “... The (JWSC’s) operating agreement prevents us from using ratepayers’ dollars to fund the program. So even if we had the cash reserves, if it were coming out of billing dollars, we wouldn’t be able to pay off customer debt.”
While the utility can’t take donations to pay for overdue bills, it can partner with another organization to do so.
If the program is approved, the JWSC will collect donations and the Coastal Georgia Area Community Action Authority will handle and distribute the funds.
The current plan is to ask customers to set up regular donations, which would be included as an opt-in item on their water bill, Sellers said. Customers could still make one-time donations, but he said he expects this option to be more popular. They will be able to set up donations either online or in-person in the utility’s office.
“To have the most impact on the debt, we’re hoping folks will do more than just round up, they’ll donate a fixed amount,” Sellers said.
Ultimately, how much each customer could receive depends on how many donations come in.
“There’s still some details that need to be worked out regarding the amount that would be provided to the customers, and that’s largely contingent on how we start receiving the contributions,” Sellers said. “For it to be meaningful, it has to be enough to ease their burden. The program will become more generous as people donate more money.”
As for exactly how the utility and authority will determine who is eligible, that’s still under discussion, Sellers said. It’s a little early to say how selective the program can be when deciding who gets assistance, but he said that the rate-payer will, at the bare minimum, have to demonstrate a genuine hardship.
“On the front end, with no money in the bank, it becomes difficult to say how generous we can be,” Sellers said. “You have to fall within some level of federal poverty guideline.”
Currently, he said the utility will likely have significant oversight in the arrangement. Regular audits and public reports are expected.
“Once we start receiving donations, we’ll publicly announce on a monthly basis in public meetings the balance in that account and how it’s being processed,” Sellers said. “We want to be very transparent with how that money’s being handled and eliminate the perception that the money is being used for anything on our end.”
He emphasized that the JWSC won’t take the money directly.
“The JWSC will be a passthrough,” Sellers said. “If you give us $10, the community action authority will receive $10. We receive no donation money.”
For its part, the action authority will get 15 percent of the money donated through the program, Sellers said.
Once the authority decides who to help, the money is then applied to the person’s bill, so donation money does ultimately end up with the JWSC, he said.
Increasing the utility’s revenue isn’t the primary goal, he said. It’s to help relieve customers of debt and to help keep them out of debt.
“We want to have an impact on customer debt,” Sellers said. “In an even bigger sense, we want to make a lasting impact on those in need, and the community action authority can do that in a way we can’t. It’s more than just paying off someone’s debt — it’s helping them avoid getting into this debt again.”
Utility officials are already investigating government programs to assist homeowners and looking into ways they can help renters reduce their water bills as well, Sellers said.
There are still fine details to hammer out in the agreement, such as where donation money goes if the contract is severed, but he said utility staff members expect to make a presentation to the JWSC commission at its April 18 meeting.
If approved there, the program could go into effect in May, Sellers said.
Community action authority representatives could not be reached for comment by press time.
Some local officials report a shortage of certified lifeguards in the Golden Isles available to hire. A new program offered at the Golden Isles YMCA aims to increase the number of local youth trained to be lifeguards, as well as promote water safety among students.
The Y hosted its first Junior Lifeguard program last week for students ages 11-14. Two campers participated in the pilot program, held during Glynn County Schools’ spring break.
The program will be offered again this summer, during one week in June and another in July.
The camp used the American Red Cross curriculum. Students do not receive an American Red Cross certificate when they complete the camp, but they are then allowed to begin gaining volunteer experience at the Golden Isles YMCA.
“At 15, they can get certified with the American Red Cross, but to give them more experience for jobs and stuff we’re allowing them to volunteer,” said Nicole Fairfield, senior program director at the Golden Isles YMCA. “Now that they’ve gone through the program, they can volunteer in the aquatic department.”
The volunteer experience will be useful if students apply for jobs as lifeguards.
“That will obviously look good when you’re trying to get a job at Summer Waves (Water Park) or the beach,” Fairfield said. “When they ask, ‘Have you had experience?’ you can be like ‘I’m 15, and I have all this experience.’”
Jessica DeBarry, an American Red Cross instructor who led the Junior Lifeguard program, covered numerous lifeguard training topics with the campers. They learned proper technique to enter the water, basic first aid, AED use and best practices to scan the water and identify drowning victims. The campers also shadowed the Y’s employed lifeguards and watched water safety videos.
“They’re learning just those basic rescue skills,” DeBarry said.
The camp is one of many water safety outreach programs offered at the Y. The programs aim to educate more local children on the importance of water safety and on ways to ensure they stay safe and can help others in need, Fairfield said.
Drowning is one of the top causes of death among youth, she said, and there’s no shortage of water in the Golden Isles, so safety education is crucial.
Fairfield said she also hopes the Junior Lifeguard program will increase the pool of potential lifeguards to fill the jobs in Glynn County.
The camp will be held this summer June 10-14 and July 8-12.
Online registration for the camp is available at ymcaofcoastalga.org. Those interested can also call the Y at 912-265-4100 to register.
The camp costs $150 for YMCA members and $200 for non-members.