01/05/09 — Help available for handling winter heating bills

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Help available for handling winter heating bills

By Anessa Myers
Published in News on January 5, 2009 1:46 PM

For Wayne County residents struggling to keep warm this winter, help is available through the utility companies themselves as well as the Department of Social Services.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission regulates public utility services in the state, including Progress Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas, and Carl Goolsby, director of consumer services, says there are regulations governing what utility companies can do when the weather turns cold.

"Depending on the weather, the companies are required to exercise discretion before they disconnect consumers, especially due to illness or disabilities or age," Goolsby said. "Most of them have programs that are very weather-sensitive, and they will communicate when they suspend service in these conditions."

During the winter months, there can be no termination of natural gas or electricity service without the approval of the state Utilities Commission, but only if residents meet certain requirements -- if they are or live in a household with an elderly or handicapped person or a person on life support; if they can't pay for the service in full but will enter into a six-month installment agreement; and if they are a household that is certified by the local social services office as being eligible for an energy crisis assistance or similar program.

In addition, residential gas and electricity can't be terminated on Fridays, weekends, state or federal holidays or on dates before state or federal holidays.

The companies also have a special code for the elderly, handicapped or those on life support that helps them keep tabs on the account so that services is not terminated because of nonpayment of a delinquent bill.

Goolsby also said that they often receive calls from consumers themselves.

"People who can't manage a high bill will come to us," he said. "We make accommodations for them with the utility company (to prolong service) for six months or 12 months."

For customers of Tri-County Electric Membership Corp., similar regulations apply.

T. Scott Poole, an administrator with North Carolina Rural Electrification Authority, which regulates co-operative services, says that the restrictions don't stop utility companies from disconnecting service.

"Generally, co-operatives and utilities let you extend the service out 30, 60, even 90 days," he said. "Then they have to make some decisions (as to whether or not to cut off the service). They have to make some arrangements."

Tri-County manager of marketing and membership services Bob Kornegay said the cooperative tries to give people extra time to pay their electricity bills.

He said officials are expecting to see more delinquent bills this year.

"Certainly with the economy the way it is, and people losing jobs, you can expect (the amount of unpaid bills) to be more," he said.

An example of the co-operative's willingness to help those in the community, is its program called Operation Roundup, which allows people to apply for money for their electricity bills.

"This is for someone who has had a catastrophic situation, like a medical issue," Kornegay said. "It's a grant. It's not designed for people that are a little late on their light bill. It's designed to help people who are in dire situations."

Progress Energy Director of Communications Mike Hughes said his company recognizes the strain some families are facing.

"Our employees and customers contribute to the fund, called the Energy Neighbor Fund, and the Progress Energy Foundation matches up to $1 million a year," Hughes said. "The money is turned over to social service agencies in the counties within our service area and allocated by the agencies to those in need."

And for those customers who are on life support or who need electricity to sustain life, there is a process that they can go through to be placed on a priority list for restoration after power outages.

"This requires a form to be filled out by a doctor. The designation does not preclude a customer's being disconnected for nonpayment, but it does alert our personnel and enables us to help make referrals to social service agencies that can help with the power bill," Hughes said.

The best thing a customer can do if he or she expects to have trouble paying the electricity bill is to call the company's customer service center as early in the process as possible.

"We have many more options when this is done early in the process. If the customer waits until the bill is 60 days past due to let us know of some financial difficulty, there are obviously fewer options," Hughes said.

Piedmont Natural Gas was contacted about their customer services regarding payments, but representatives didn't reply by press time.

Residents who need more help with their heating bills than the companies can provide can turn to the Wayne County Department of Social Services, which has programs to help people in need, said director Deborah Jones.

The Low-Income Energy Assistance program is a program that helps low-income households that typically receive food and nutrition benefits to automatically receive money for energy bills in February. The application process for this season ended Nov. 13, but residents can apply for next year. Residents who don't receive food and nutrition benefits can apply separately for energy assistance funds, but Ms. Jones says the checks aren't that large -- only about $140.

The Crisis Intervention program is in place for residents who have had a temporary reduction, through the loss of a job or decrease in wages, in family income that results in a heating crisis.

"We did just receive some extra money from the federal government for this in part because of the expected cold weather," Ms. Jones said. "This could be for outside workers who might not have as much work this season or people in construction. It has to be a crisis that is not of their own making."

Applications for the Crisis Intervention program are available at the Salvation Army Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"We suggest people come in, bring their utility bill and talk with a case worker at the Salvation Army to see if they can receive some funds," Ms. Jones said. "We can also negotiate with the utility companies for them to make a partial payment to extend services for a period of time. We do a lot of that through the Crisis Intervention program. And we also have a lot of people calling for help for their family members."

And so far this year, she added, the effects of the economic downturn are being felt.

"We are already seeing an increase in applicants for all of our programs," Ms. Jones said. "We are seeing people, too, who are not familiar with social services and our programs, and people that we have to spend more time with because they have never been here before."