BG&E offers reprieve from power cutoffs

March 02, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

Hoping to avoid another fatal fire, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. offered yesterday to give the estimated 3,000 households without electricity or without gas a chance to have their service restored through April.

The announcement came less than 72 hours after a candle started a West Baltimore rowhouse fire that killed nine of the 12 people inside. BG&E had cut off electricity to the house in October, when unpaid bills had climbed to $1,600 and repeated efforts to work out a payment plan had failed.

"You can't say it's not a factor [in the decision]," BG&E spokesman Arthur J. Slusark said of that blaze. "We believe . . . we did all we could in that case. We went beyond what's required by Maryland law. But it's there, and if we can do anything to stop further problems, then it's great."

Saturday night's fire at 2035 Hollins St. was the deadliest in Baltimore in more than a decade. It also was similar to several fatal fires in the 1980s that prompted lawmakers to change state regulations in a way that restricted the right of utility companies to terminate service in cold-weather months.

BG&E's announcement was greeted with joy and surprise by those who help the poor with energy bills.

"You've got to be kidding!" said Bea Gaddy, whose nonprofit group receives daily requests for energy aid and borrowed money to pay its last utility bill. "They are beginning to be humanistic. This is good, and I am going to share it with a lot of people."

Chief Joseph Dillon of the city Fire Department said the new policy was a "sincere effort" that should make a difference.

"But the smoke detector is still the most important thing," he said. "A portable smoke detector with a battery also would have saved lives."

Under BG&E's new program, households without power can be reconnected through April 30 while the company works with social service and government agencies to find money to pay the bills.

Mr. Slusark said most probably will meet the income standards and hardship definition that BG&E plans to develop for the program.

The income criterion is straightforward: Households must earn no more than $1,794 a month for a family of four, 150 percent of the poverty level.

Mr. Slusark said the hardship definition probably will build on BG&E's current standard, under which the utility does not terminate wintertime service to households with young children or with elderly, sick or disabled residents.

"We already believe we take extraordinary measures to help our customers manage their bills and keep their service on," BG&E Chairman Christian H. Poindexter said in a statement released yesterday.

No debts will be forgiven through the new program. BG&E customers still will be expected to pay overdue bills, a reconnection fee and their subsequent bills.

BG&E does not terminate both gas and electricity service to a household; usually the electricity is cut off.

And the company has sharply reduced the terminations each year, especially during cold-weather months. This winter, fewer than 40 of its 1.1 million customers have had their electricity cut off, and all but two were reconnected quickly.

Of the thousands lacking electricity, most were disconnected before the cold-weather rules went into effect Nov. 1.

But it is possible for families to lose their power in the winter, despite the widespread belief that there is a moratorium on cutoffs. And there is no regulation that forces a utility to restore power when weather is harsh.

Under state regulations, a utility that wants to terminate power from Nov. 1 through March 31 must file an affidavit with the state Public Service Commission and wait at least 24 hours.

Since January, Maryland's power companies have filed almost 5,500 of those notices, but few result in terminations.

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