Utility-Bill Spikes Shock Needy

Utility-bill spikes shock needy
By Mark Price and Bruce Henderson
Posted: Tuesday, Mar. 09, 2010

Because of the recent cold streak, Nanette Little’s gas and electric bills total $600 this month.

Accumulated utility bills for Crisis Assistance Ministry clients average $800 this month.

Mary Martin says it felt like she had gotten punched in the chest – by her utility bill.

It has run as high as $350 during the coldest of winter months, she says.

But last month, it climbed to over $600: an overwhelming figure to a 52-year-old who, like millions of other Americans, has lost her job and tapped out her unemployment benefits.

“I was in shock. I had my son go look around the outside to make sure nobody had any electric cords plugged up to my house,” says Martin, who lives in Charlotte with two children.

“There’s going to be a lot of unscrewed light bulbs in my house and closed-off rooms. We’re doubling up in the beds, and I’m turning off some circuit breakers.”

Martin is among the hundreds who’ve turned to emergency-needs charities in recent weeks for help on utility bills that are running 20 to 60 percent higher than last year.

Utility companies blame the intense cold of Dec. 1 through Jan. 14, which included some of the coldest temperatures in more than 30 years.

On Monday, 177 people waited in line for help at Crisis Assistance Ministry, almost a third more than usual. Their accumulated bills are averaging more than $800.

Smaller critical-needs agencies like Matthews Help Center are reporting double the numbers over last year, including a man who showed up last week with an accumulated $1,362 gas bill that had to be paid before his house could be reconnected.

With Charlotte-area unemployment hovering at a near-record 12.1 percent, problems like those are multiplying. Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas are both reporting a jump in residential disconnections in 2009, with Duke’s up 6.3 percent (to 144,804 statewide) and Piedmont’s up 15.9 percent (to 53,696).

In short, the cold made an existing problem worse.

“Dozens of the people in line Monday had already lost their utilities,” said Carol Hardison of Crisis Assistance Ministry.

“A large number had never had to seek help before. They were in disbelief that they had been brought to this point of having to ask for help.”

In anticipation of crowds to come, the agency is adding an appointments-only evening shift starting March 16. The shifts will continue through April and possibly May, Hardison said.

Crisis Assistance has also doubled the amount it is giving families in need, to $300. In addition, the agency can help families get money from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Money to train staff to cover the new evening shifts – and the extra money per family – is coming from the Critical Need Response Fund, which gave the agency $350,000 last month.

“For many, it could be the highest electric bill they’ve ever had,” Hardison said. “With their income the lowest it’s ever been, it’s a double whammy.”

Rates may drop this fall

Duke’s all-electric residential customers paid an average of $166 this January, compared to $46 for the same month two years earlier. The differences: temperatures that averaged 3 degrees colder this January and a fuel-cost adjustment and rate increase that added 9.1 percent to Duke’s residential rates.

Duke expects residential rates to drop about 4 percent in September if the N.C. Utilities Commission agrees to proposed adjustments.

The utility says it’s been having more conversations about payment plans for customers behind on their bills, said spokeswoman Paige Sheehan, and working with aid agencies.

Disconnections by Duke and Piedmont Natural Gas increased markedly last March, jumping a third higher than February numbers for Duke customers and nearly doubling among Piedmont customers.

That likely reflects the time it takes to disconnect customers who can’t pay their bills once cold weather hits, the companies said.

Some customers might also see paying overdue heating bills as a smaller priority once weather warms.

The process to shut off a customer can take three months or longer. Piedmont, for example, reported that past-due notices went to 20,976 Charlotte customers in January.

Another 5,523 were listed as eligible for “first contact,” 10 days after those notices went out.

Piedmont issues disconnection notices when customers don’t respond in one or two days to first contacts by door tag, phone or mail. The utility generated 2,696 disconnection notices in Charlotte in January, but disconnected only 328.

Read more: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2010/03/09/1300301/utility-bill-spikes-shock-needy.html#ixzz0iwxGOfTl

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