Unable to pay, hundreds are without utilities fTC


December 24, 1992|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

In the front room of Shirley O. Brown's two-story row house stands a gaily decorated Christmas tree with tinsel and ornaments. But it's missing one touch -- lights -- because the house's electricity has been cut off for six months.

Ms. Brown, who owes more than $3,000 in utility bills, hoped that by Christmas, she and her two sons would be able to end their ordeal of living without electricity and gas.

Ms. Brown, 35, has tried to scrape together money from government agencies, charities and friends to pay the $1,000 needed to reconnect the utilities. "My kids are not going to be in the dark and cold on Christmas," she declared.

But today, Christmas Eve, the West Baltimore house is still dark.

Hundreds of Baltimore-area residents, like Ms. Brown, are without lights and heat this holiday season. Nearly 38,000 people -- increasingly the "working poor" -- lost utility service this year. For many, the problem lasts for months.

And as winter approaches and companies continue to lay off workers -- and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. moves ahead with a proposed rate increase -- the situation could worsen, advocates for the poor say.


* The number of houses and apartments in BG&E's service territory that remain without electricity or gas for 15 days to six months has climbed to 6,723 -- an 81.2 percent increase since 1987. BG&E officials say most of these customers move to other housing long before the six-month period

elapses, but they don't have figures on how many remain in dark, unheated homes.

* About 43,500 BG&E customers received state grants to help with utility bills during the 1991-1992 heating season -- a 32.6 percent increase over the past four years. Meanwhile, the

average grant has declined because of a lack of money.

* The number of customers -- and the amount of debt -- in BG&E's delinquent payment program have climbed dramatically this year. The number of people making installment payments on overdue bills has increased from 7,000 to 9,600. And the total debt -- which the company carries interest-free -- has jumped to $3.7 million, a 27.5 percent increase.

Overdue utility bills are a routine crisis for Cynthia J. Riely, consumer liaison with the People's Counsel, the state office that represents ratepayers before the Public Service Commission.

Working at a crisis center at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, Ms. Riely and other workers see at least 60 people a day who are having trouble paying utility bills. About half of them are without electricity.

The problem is fueled by the recession. Welfare benefits have been cut because of government budgetary pressure. And minimum-wage jobs often don't pay enough to cover rent and utilities.

As the center's caseload increases, Ms. Riely sees a steady stream of desperate people. "We are so involved in putting out fires every day," she said.

From Oct. 1 to March 31, BG&E and other utilities are restricted in turning off electricity or gas. Service cannot be turned off in households where there are children under 3 years old, disabled or sick people or elderly over 65. The company also cannot cut off service on days when the temperature falls below freezing.

Still, many people live without utilities for months, into the winter. For cash-strapped clients, Ms. Riely can recommend several programs.

The state's largest effort to prevent cutoffs is the Maryland Energy Assistance Program. The program expects that about 91,000 households will get grants to help pay heating bills from Nov. 1 through March 31. If past trends hold true, about half will be BG&E customers.

But as the program's funding has dwindled, grants have shrunk. The average grant to BG&E customers has declined from $300 to $240 over the past three years.

Participation in the program is tied more to the economy than to the weather, says MEAP Director Sandra E. Brown. Participation declined from 1987 through 1989, but climbed dramatically during the 1990-1991 heating period.

Today, Ms. Brown sees more "working poor" receiving the grants. That group accounted for 27 percent of the recipients last year, compared to 24 percent the previous year.

An increase in electric and gas rates would put additional pressure on the poor, she says. BG&E has proposed boosting electricity rates by 8.6 percent and gas rates by 1.5 percent. Public hearings on the proposal will start in February.

"There are certain things you pay regardless of your ability to pay," Ms. Brown said. "They are not adjusted to your ability to pay."

Strapped customers also can get help from various private and government-sponsored programs. For example, the Baltimore Fuel Fund, a private nonprofit group, distributed $760,959 in aid to low-income ratepayers during its last fiscal year.

But the problem often goes beyond an overdue bill, says Carol A. Clements, executive director of the Baltimore Fuel Fund.

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