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Health, Science, Environment

Page, Krewson Distribute Millions To Pay Utility Bills During Coronavirus Pandemic

Tony Bartleson attemps to lure his dog, Murphy, into the water at Kerth Fountain in Forest Park on Thursday, July 5, 2018.
File Photo | Sarah Fentem
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St. Louis Public Radio
Concerned that many people will not be able to pay summer utility bills during the coronavirus pandemic, St. Louis and St. Louis County officials are distributing millions in federal aid.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announced Wednesday the county will distribute $1 million in federal funding through the nonprofit Cool Down St. Louis to help people pay their utility bills.

Tens of thousands of people in the St. Louis region need help paying their energy bills during the coronavirus pandemic, as many are unable to work and remain stuck at home.

State and local moratoriums on utility disconnections during the pandemic are also beginning to expire. That puts many people at risk of losing their electricity and air conditioning during the hottest time of the year, said Pam Walker, president of the nonprofit’s board.

“As we go longer through the summer, bills get higher, people get more behind,” Walker said. “Utility companies are going to have to face shut-offs.”

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson pledged $3 million in federal funds to the organization earlier this month.

Ameren Missouri, which supplies electricity to St. Louis residents, is resuming normal shut-off policies starting Aug. 3. That’s a week after federal $600 weekly unemployment payments expire.

Approximately 150,000 people in the St. Louis region are behind on their energy bills, Walker said.

More than four times as many people as last year are requesting financial help to pay for utilities, Cool Down St. Louis founder Gentry Trotter said. Typical requests for assistance run $400.

“This year, you know why they’re high,” he said. “We’re telling people to stay at home, seniors and disabled people, people with kids. So things are going to get expensive.”

Public spaces such as libraries and recreation centers are closed because of the virus, limiting places where poor people can go to cool off during dangerous heat waves.

Utility payments often are the first thing people begin to ignore when money is tight, Walker said. That means people could have racked up thousands of dollars in unpaid utility bills since the beginning of the pandemic in spring.

Cool Down St. Louis will soon begin hosting online versions of its popular budgeting forums, Trotter said. The forums allow residents a place to learn about how the nonprofit can help them with payments and sign up for assistance.

The forums also offer budgeting assistance, information on how to lower utilities payments and other services.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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