Helping to keep the lights burning


Howard County may be known for its affluence, but some of its poorest residents can' t afford electricity, and a few owe more than $2,000, which they have to pay to get the lights turned back on.

Until now, the county's human services agencies have had a hard time cobbling together small amounts of money from different sources to help people who owe big debts, but a new $34 million energy-aid fund gives big utility debtors in Howard the same access to aid as poor people anywhere in Maryland.

"With this new program, you can effectively pay that off," said Larry E. Hunt, director of program policy and development for Howard's Community Action Council. "People get cut off more frequently. This year, we've seen more very high bills."

He warned, however, that the new money will pay only electricity bills, not those for gas or heating oil, for which there are other programs. That's because the energy-aid fund that was scheduled to become available Saturday is the product of a General Assembly deal opening the electricity field to competition.

Because of a lawsuit filed by a New Jersey utility, distribution of the money is being delayed at least until a court hearing this month, but state officials are going ahead with their efforts to organize.

"We will be carrying on as usual. Our hope is that this will all clear up soon," said Elyn Jones, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources, which administers the fund.

Howard's anti-poverty agency is trying to spread the word that the money is there for anyone whose bills are so high they've given up trying to pay. A new agency worker will be hired to help people with their electricity problems, Hunt said.

Hunt and Dorothy L. Moore, the council's director, have asked the five County Council members to hold community meetings in each of their districts to spread the word that big bills can be paid.

"We don't want any catastrophes," Moore told the council members at a recent meeting, referring to the deaths of four people last month, including three children, in a fire in a Baltimore rowhouse that was started by a candle.

The house had been without electricity for a year before the victims began living there, according to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials.

"We want to get all of Howard County to make sure people know about this," Moore told the council last month.

So far, though, only Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, has scheduled a meeting with constituents. The meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Slayton House in Wilde Lake. "Electricity is not just a choice. It's a necessity of life," Hunt said.

Howard, like other localities, uses a variety of programs to help people with their bills.Last year, the county gave 1,133 families aid for winter heating bills though the Maryland Energy Assistance Program. Another 245 families got help through the private, nonprofit Maryland Fuel Fund program, and 146 more got help with gas and electric bills through the state's Emergency Assistance to Families with Children. Much of that aid is for things besides electricity such as fuel oil, gas bills or eviction prevention.

The average grant to a family in Howard is $251, Hunt said, and some families who owe more than $1,000 and have lost service give up regaining it except by diversion or through an illegal hook-up.

Hunt said people who owe $2,000 would normally have to come up with a quarter of the amount themselves, then might get several hundred dollars from several energy-assistance funds and still need to find a few hundred more, perhaps from a church charity fund. "We package these kind of things," he said.

People seeking help range from a mother of seven children to elderly people - sometimes homeowners - with limited incomes, Hunt said. "We believe there are a lot more of those people there."

The job of helping them has been a difficult one, he said, complicated by what Hunt called BGE's "inconsistent" cut-off policies. "We had a person who came in who just got cut off with a bill over $2,000. We had another person cut off who owed $269." It's hard to tell, he said, what the utility company will do, or when it will do it. "We just hope for consistency."

Still, Hunt said, and despite his strong desire to help, agency officials know that "if you use a service, you're responsible for paying."

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