Thursday, Oct. 25, 2007

Agencies see surge in clients seeking help with power bills

Some Laurel customers have seen 50 percent increases

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Since Baltimore Gas and Electric increased the cost of its services in June 2007 by 50 percent, large numbers of Laurel residents are reaching out to community groups for financial assistance because they’re unable to pay their utility bills.

‘‘We are seeing unprecedented numbers of people coming to us for assistance with utilities,” said Nancy Graham, executive director of Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services, a group that offers food, rental assistance and other services to residents who can demonstrate financial need. The organization also helps homeless people living in Laurel.

The BGE increases in June matched market rates following Maryland’s deregulation of the electric power industry. The company offered a program in which customers could have deferred paying the full increase until January 2008, and then would have repaid the difference, interest-free, over 21 months. Only 45,000 customers out of 1.1 million signed up.

During the last fiscal year, which ended in June, 164 people asked LARS for help to pay for their utility bills. But 137 residents have already asked for such help since July, Graham said.

The number of people applying since July is significant given that utility bills are typically higher during the colder winter months, Graham said. The 137 requests from the past four months, which were non-winter months, almost equal all of last year’s.

The first resource that LARS and other groups direct residents to is the Maryland Energy Assistance Program. MEAP assisted 7,052 Prince George’s households with $2.9 million last fiscal year.

Under the federally funded program, a person who makes less than $17,000 annually can apply for credits to reduce utility bill charges.

Deborah, a 51-year-old Laurel resident, made a startling discovery this summer—her utility bills doubled.

‘‘It’s kind of scary,” she said. ‘‘It looked like the more I cut back, my bill is still high.”

Deborah, who is embarrassed about receiving assistance and has asked that her last name be withheld, says she has a heart condition and finds it difficult to pay both her medical and utility expenses.

As a BGE customer, Deborah is not alone. A single mother with two children went to Graham with a $3,000 utility bill in October. Most residents with cut-off notices have bills that range between $200 to $500, said Donny Phillips, LARS director of emergency and homeless services.

Those on fixed incomes, such as senior citizens, are hardest hit by the increases, Graham said.

Renee Dawson, Salvation Army social services director, said she typically sees low-income residents asking for help, but now middle-income residents need assistance, too. The Hyattsville-based center serves residents throughout the county.

‘‘It’s like every other call is calling for utility assistance, and there’s no funding in our county,” she said.

Through the Fuel Fund of Maryland, BGE typically provides $1 million annually in fuel credits to customers, for 50 cents on the dollar, said Don Dasher, BGE director of community relations.

The Fuel Fund of Maryland is funded by private donations and provides assistance to low-income customers living in central Maryland. Residents pay a portion of their bills and then receive credits from fuel companies or the fund.

Dasher said an additional $1 million from the fund was given in July because of customer demand. BGE gave $250,000 more in credits less than a month ago.

‘‘This is the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve used all our BGE match [funds],” Dawson said of her 18-year tenure with the Salvation Army. She hopes to see the money by the end of the month.

‘‘The inability to pay utility bills is a symptom of poverty,” Dasher said. ‘‘You have to look at societal issues that cause poverty.”

The Salvation Army offers help through the Washington Area Fuel Fund, a program founded by Washington Gas and funded through private donations. Residents throughout the metro area who do not qualify for the federal program can access the fund. Under the program last year, an individual had to make less than $20,304 a year, and a family of three had to bring in less than $33,204 to qualify for help.

If residents do not qualify for the program because of higher household incomes, or their utilities have already been cut off, private organizations such as LARS and the Salvation Army can offer some assistance.

But with funds quickly depleting, many organizations are worrying about the coming winter months.

‘‘They say we’re going to have a really bad winter. It’s frightening,” Dawson said. ‘‘It’s a lot of seniors and low-income [residents], and all of them are trying to figure out where money is going to come from.”

E-mail Elahe Izadi at eizadi@gazette.net.