This winter's mild temperatures appear to have eased a strain on household budgets in Maryland everywhere except the Eastern Shore, where consumer representatives say a tough electric utility is cracking down on late bill-payers in the recession-hammered region.
Despite tough economic times, nearly every energy utility in the state has sent out fewer electricity cutoff notices so far this winter, according to statistics filed with the Public Service Commission.
Only Delmarva Power & Light Co., which serves 122,000 Marylanders on the Eastern Shore, bucked the trend, increasing by nearly one third the number of shut-off warnings to delinquent customers in December.
In fact, Delmarva has sent out 80 percent of all official cutoff warnings in Maryland this winter, even though the company serves about 6 percent of the state's population.
Those familiar with utility collection techniques said DP&L; is one of the toughest utilities in the state.
While many other utilities won't cut off power to customers during the winter, DP&L; doesn't give its customers a wintertime break, they say.
Cheryl Senkbeil, who runs an energy charity for the Salvation Army in Salisbury, said she's seen a flood of new applicants for help because of the worsening economy and DP&L;'s tough policies.
"It is DP&L;'s policy and right to cut somebody off, even if you have electrical lifesaving equipment in your household, like oxygen," she said.
"You could get a portable oxygen tank. . . . I've seen cases where elderly or disabled people with asthma have gotten cutoff notices."
"I had one case yesterday where a customer was cut off for owing $63.98. That's not a real high bill," Ms. Senkbeil said.
The need has been so great this winter that she expects to run out of money in a few weeks. Normally, the Good Neighbors assistance program can help Eastern Shore residents through April, she said.
In DP&L;'s defense, Ms. Senkbeil said the company isn't as tough as some smaller utilities. DP&L; usually won't turn off power if customers call the company and make an effort to pay their bills.
Peggy Brinkley, a DP&L; spokeswoman, said yesterday that she was surprised to hear her utility sent out most of the cutoff notices in the state.
In November and December, Delmarva sent out a total of 10,670 shut-off warnings, 12 percent more than during the previous winter. The rest of the state's utilities combined sent out a total of 2,680, 2 percent fewer than the same period last year.
In December alone, Delmarva sent out 5,578 notices, up 30 percent from the number it sent in December of 1990, according to the PSC figures.
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which serves 1 million customers, sent out a total of 1,431 notices in the last two months of the year, exactly the same number as in the same period of 1990.
DP&L; doesn't have unusually strict collection policies, Ms. Brinkley insisted. The company threatens to cut off customers who are more than 60 days late in paying, "and when the termination date rolls around, we follow it through," she said.
"It is not that our number is so high," she said. "It seems like theirnumber [the number of cutoff notices sent out by the rest of Maryland's utilities] is so low."
DP&L; won't turn a customer's power off if the shut-off would threaten life or health, or if the temperature is lower than 32 degrees at 8 a.m. on the day of the proposed shut-off, she said.
The state requires energy utilities that want to cut off delinquent customers from November to April to file affidavits swearing that the cutoff won't threaten the customer's life or health. Not every affidavit will result in a power shut-off, however.
Utilities are free to stop service to nonpaying customers without filing an affidavit in the summer.
Consumer representatives said that the mild winter is keeping most consumers' bills down.
Ironically, the mild weather can also serve to increase the number of cutoff notices, since it is easier to show that loss of power won't hurt a customer's life or health when the weather is warm.
Though they don't announce it, many utility companies around the state simply don't shut off power to their customers during the winter, said Cynthia Riely, a staff member of the Office of People's Counsel.