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Helping to keep heat on in cold economic times

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 27, 2008 - Heat-Up St. Louis knows the drill.

Requests for energy assistance tend to spike following snowy and icy conditions such as those that swept through the area recently. This year, though, has been different. Many households were desperate for help long before the start of winter.

Laclede Gas has the numbers to prove it. The number of customers whose service has been shut off because of nonpayment of bills is up 18 percent over last year. At least 66,000 households, more than 1 in every 10 of its customers, have been denied service, according to the utility.

Meanwhile, Ameren and other electric and gas utilities serving Illinois reported a net 2008 shutoff rate of 12 percent as of September. There are no comparative figures for 2007 because relatively few shutoffs occurred as Illinois lawmakers worked on reforming electric rates.

Community action groups in St. Louis, Jefferson and Franklin counties in Missouri and in the Metro East all report increases in the number of families seeking help, compared to last year. Across Missouri, an estimated 200,000 natural gas consumers have been shut off, an increase of about 4 percent over 2007, according to the Missouri Public Service Commission.

Laclede's shutoffs have risen -- even though bills are lower because the supply of natural gas is up and the demand is down, according to the utility's spokesperson, George Csolak. He expects more families to get relief through the projected $115 million Missouri is getting from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program or LIHEAP. Illinois is getting roughly $265 million.

Liheap Isn't Enough

Although Congress has nearly doubled to $5.1 billion the funding for LIHEAP, agencies that help the needy pay their heating bills say the federal money doesn't begin to cover the number of households eligible for the program.

"The reality is that LIHEAP is not enough," says Gentry Trotter, founder and executive director of Heat-Up St. Louis, one of the key area agencies that consumers rely on for help with their utility bills. Heat-Up St. Louis is an all-volunteer effort that gets its money from donations and special events. It serves consumers in St. Louis and in 17 counties in Missouri and Illinois. Trotter says his program has given about $300,000 in assistance since late fall and could run out of money by the end of this year without additional donations.

Moreover, Trotter adds, "There is a new wave of applicants standing in line for help. We're seeing more of them. We usually serve the elderly, the disabled and families with small children. But we're also seeing a lot of first-time people come to us for assistance because they have been hurt by the recession or the mortgage crisis."

His comments echo those of community action agencies on both sides of the Mississippi River; they say they're seeing more people who have fallen on hard times due to the recession. One person who sought help through Heat-Up St. Louis was Laverne Gregory, 58, who lives in south St. Louis. She isn't accustomed to seeking charity, but she swallowed her pride following her recent layoff from a document-imaging company.

"I saw it coming because the company was laying off people constantly," she says. "This has been especially tough because my husband is disabled, and I was the only one working."

Gregory says, "It looked like what we were charged would go up $200 every time we got a bill in the mail. So we got behind. The gas was turned off, and we had to go out and buy hot plates for cooking and boiling water for bathing and washing up."

Thanks to groups like Heat-Up St. Louis – along with Catholic Charities, Laclede's Dollar Help program and Ameren's Dollar More project – many families are being helped. "I was happy to be reconnected even though I'm out of a job," Gregory says of the assistance she got in part through Heat-Up. "Having the gas on meant that I could finally take showers, cook and wash clothes again."

Cold Weather Rule

Timing makes all the difference to families struggling to avoid shutoffs. Some look to Missouri's so-called Cold Weather Rule, which forbids utilities from disconnecting heat-related service from Nov. 1 through March 31 when the temperature is expected to drop below 32 degrees. The rule also allows consumers to budget their payments over 12 months, extend payment of older bills beyond 12 months and reconnect service after paying less than the full amount overdue.

But the rule requires consumers to meet certain conditions. They must notify utilities by mail and in person before service is scheduled to be shut off. Some families mistakenly assume they are automatically protected against shutoffs whenever temperatures dip below the magic number.

Some consumers also make the mistake of simply refusing to pay their utility bills, then try to use the Cold Weather Rule as a shield, says Trotter.

"That doesn't work," he says. "We tell everybody that the first thing they need to do is contact the utilities the minute they realize they cannot pay their bills and work out a payment plan before they are shut off."

Consumers nationwide are hurting, too. Last week, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners reported that nearly 40 million customers in 41 states, excluding Missouri, hadn't paid their electric or gas bills as of May of this year. Last year, the study said, natural gas service to about 1 in 20 customers in the 41 states was shut off for nonpayment.

Utilities encourage customers to use budget billing and to get help through LIHEAP and other sources. They also stress that consumers should turn to conservation to lower their utility expenses. Laclede's Csolak urge consumers to turn down their thermostats, although he wouldn't recommend a specific temperature.

Consumer advocates are more blunt.

"We tell people that they need to lower the thermostat and start wearing sweaters to lower their gas and electric bills," Trotter says. "We're concerned because we don't think the official number of shutoffs are accurate. Aside from the number that have been shut off by Laclede, thousands more are threatened with shutoff. We are the only safety net left for many of them."

Three places where consumers can go to seek help for utilities or to make donations to help others are: Heat-Up St. Louis www.heatupstlouis.org ; Laclede Gas' Dollar Help program www.dollarhelp.org ; and Ameren's Dollar More program www.ameren.com/community .

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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