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Surge in calls for help to keep the power on

Dina Kuniken lives in a drafty old house in Baltimore that costs a lot to heat in a normal winter — and this past winter was not normal.

Her bill doubled. The nursing assistant was out of work at the time and couldn't afford it. Last month, she scraped together $1,650, got help from the city and Catholic Charities to pay the difference, and finally erased the past-due amount that could have left her and her two children without power.

"They got my bill down to zero, and I'm very thankful," said Kuniken, 29.

Many are still trying to get to that point.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. mailed more than 600,000 notices to customers during the first three months of the year that warned the power could soon be turned off — an increase of 62,000 from the same period last year. Organizations that pay portions of past-due utility bills say the surge in calls for assistance they got during the bitterly cold winter have continued this spring as people try to keep their power on.

"There's twice as many people asking for help," said Mary Ellen Vanni, executive director of the Fuel Fund of Maryland, which helps customers in BGE's territory.

Frigid weather during the winter forced customers to use more energy to heat their homes, driving up costs. The region spent double the number of hours at or below freezing between November and mid-March as it did the year before, BGE said.

On top of that, customers with variable-rate contracts for electricity or gas provided by third parties were hit with much higher bills as those rates spiked. State regulators launched an investigation into five companies after receiving hundreds of complaints.

But there's a more enduring problem afoot than the rough winter. For a growing number of Marylanders, keeping the power on is a constant struggle.

The big jump in utility costs in the last decade far outstripped wage growth. Maryland's residential electricity rates were 66 percent higher in 2012 than a decade earlier, according to the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That's triple the increase of median household income.

BGE customers' rates spiked in 2006 and 2007 as caps set during the deregulation process came off — increases the company attributed largely to higher energy costs. Though that expense has eased since, it's not enough to erase most of the rate jump.

BGE also increased its distribution rates twice last year and added surcharges for infrastructure work.

All told, Marylanders saw bigger electricity rate increases in recent years than Americans overall. But much higher utility bills are a problem nationwide, at a time when federal energy assistance money is falling, according to the National Consumer Law Center in Boston.

"Over the last 15, 20 years, utility bills have become a larger and larger component of the household budget," said John Howat, the center's senior energy analyst. "I think people have traditionally looked at utility affordability problems as problems that really just face very poor, very low-income households. And that's no longer the case. There are more and more middle-class households that have trouble just making ends meet every month."

For people on fixed incomes, utility bills can be a budget buster.

Tracey Barnett, 46, a West Baltimore resident whose seizures prevent her from working, said she lives on $720 a month in Supplemental Security Income. Her monthly BGE bill generally ranges from $130 to $180 — up to a quarter of her monthly income.

Thanks to help from family, she said, she managed. Then her power was turned off in late April. She said her BGE bills didn't arrive for several months this year and the payments she made, with the assumption that the high end of her payment range would be sufficient, weren't credited to her account. She discovered after the fact that she'd used an old account number.

"They had no record of it," Barnett said. Because she can't find the receipts from the check-cashing shop where she transferred the payments, she has no record, either, though she said BGE gave her credit for one of the payments after the fact.

Barnett got the power back on after several days by borrowing money and getting assistance at Paul's Place, a nonprofit in Southwest Baltimore. She's so grateful that she's gathering clothes to donate to the group.

But then she thought about the next BGE bill. How will she cover that, with her slim SSI check eaten up to pay back the money she borrowed last month?

"That's the million-dollar question," she said. "I'm going to leave it to God — that's all I can do."

Loss of power makes a home all but uninhabitable, though Maryland Legal Aid said it has impoverished clients who've gone for months without it, staying with friends on particularly cold nights. A shut-off also puts renters in danger of eviction — and losing their Section 8 voucher if they have the subsidy.

"From our point of view, it would be really most helpful all the way around to try to develop a more systematic approach to bill affordability," said Paula Carmody, head of the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, which represents residential utility customers.

Her office supports an approach she thinks would improve upon Maryland's current "patchwork" efforts to help customers. But the idea is languishing.

The state's utility regulator, the Maryland Public Service Commission, launched a review of energy assistance programs two years ago to "consider alternatives to the seemingly untenable status quo." The agency's staff, working with Carmody's office, proposed a plan to cap utility payments for customers of modest means so those bills don't eat up more than a certain amount of income — perhaps 6 percent.

Six states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, have percentage-of-income programs for customers of at least some utilities, the National Consumer Law Center says.

Maryland regulators held a hearing on the proposal a year ago. There's been no movement since.

"That needs to come off the shelf," said the Fuel Fund's Vanni. "I think that's the only way we're going to get something done, just to make energy more affordable for people."

The stumbling block might be the expense. Regulators' staff estimated the proposal could cost an additional $213 million over what ratepayers currently contribute for utility-bill assistance. That would increase the charge to residential customers from 37 cents a month to more than $8, unless the difference was split with businesses.

A group of major power users said no thanks to the idea of sharing that cost. And BGE raised concerns about the impact on customers who wouldn't receive the help.

"BGE urges that serious consideration be given to developing a limited pilot program to determine both the costs and potential benefits of the program," the company said in its written comments.

Carmody said the cost estimate is likely "way, way high" because it doesn't account for savings that would come if utilities reduce collections efforts and write off fewer bad debts — expenses passed on to all ratepayers. Regulators could handle the proposal as a jumping-off point, she noted.

"We'd like them to simply say, 'This looks promising, we're interested, there are obviously a number of issues, but we're directing utilities and asking a number of stakeholders to develop it further and see whether this makes sense,' " she said.

This year, the Public Service Commission focused on winter bill spikes instead, asking utilities to increase their efforts to work with customers in financial distress.

Carol Dodson, BGE's chief customer officer, said the company's steps included frequent energy-assistance events and extending to 18 months the amount of time consumers could spread out repayment of past-due amounts.

Termination, she said, "is our last resort."

"We try to work with our customers individually," Dodson said. "We want to help them be successful in paying their bills."

In February, amid the sharp cold and spiking costs, Maryland officials announced they would apply $20 million in additional utility assistance to the bills of low-income families who applied for the Electric Universal Service Program — an average of about $175 in help apiece.

Many Marylanders were already in trouble. In BGE's territory alone, more than 230,000 customers were behind that month. Nearly as many had past-due amounts in March.

Some overdue bills resulted in turn-offs during the winter, but relatively few. State law bars shut-offs on days when the 72-hour forecast calls for freezing conditions.

That law means groups giving utility-bill assistance are typically busy in the spring. But this year is big even by that measure.

Paul's Place in Washington Village is getting "exceptionally high" numbers of requests for help, with bills ranging from $600 to $4,000, said Bill McLennan, its executive director.

My Sister's Place Women's Center in Baltimore, a Catholic Charities organization with an arm that helps city residents with utility bills, had booked assistance appointments as far out as June by late April.

"There is a great need," said Valerie Tarantino, the center's director. "People are struggling."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

Energy help

Some options for customers struggling with gas and electric bills:

• Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. says it works with customers on repayment plans, offers programs such as budget billing and suggests groups that provide other assistance: 800-685-0123.

• Maryland's Office of Home Energy Programs enrolls lower-income customers in energy assistance programs: 800-352-1446. Baltimore City residents should call 410-396-5555.

• United Way of Central Maryland's 211 line connects callers with groups that provide bill-payment help.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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