Ministers urge new policies on power cutoffs

March 08, 1994|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Sun Staff Writer

*TC Representatives of more than 200 Baltimore ministers asked yesterday to meet with the head of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to seek new ways to protect the poor from having their power shut off.

Their request came in the wake of a Feb. 26 fire that killed nine people -- including seven children -- in a Hollins Street rowhouse where the electricity had been shut off since October. Residents had failed to pay a portion of a delinquent $1,600 bill to regain service, according to BG&E officials.

At a news conference at Enon Baptist Church in West Baltimore, the group of Baptist, Lutheran, United Methodist and Roman Catholic clergy said they want to meet with BG&E Chairman Christian H. Poindexter this week to review cutoff policies.

"This is not a time for laying blame. We want to look at ways of helping poor people and give them a chance. We are asking BG&E to come together with us," said the Rev. John L. Wright, of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Greater Baltimore. His parish, the First Baptist Church of Guilford, gives $50,000 annually to help people pay for utility bills and food.

BG&E is likely to set a meeting for this week, said the Rev. William Calhoun, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore, which has a membership of 225 city ministers.

BG&E spokesman Art Slusark said the ministers are invited to join an "energy advocates" group formed by the company to explore ways to aid low-income customers. The group is scheduled to meet again Monday.

Mr. Poindexter said last week that by next winter he hopes to have a new policy to handle cutoffs. And he ordered that power be restored through April for customers who can demonstrate a hardship.

A state Public Service Commission regulation prevents utilities from terminating residential gas or electric service from Nov. 1 through March 31 for nonpayment until a formal procedure has been followed.

BG&E officials say that if there is a hardship -- such as children under the age of 3, senior citizens or seriously ill residents -- the threatened service is retained. BG&E has disconnected 39 homes this winter, a spokesman said.

Mr. Slusark said yesterday that it would cost BG&E $55 million annually -- or a 5 percent rate increase for "typical" customers -- if the company did not disconnect service for delinquent customers. The company absorbs $15 million each year in uncollectible bills, he said.

"We live in a society where there has to be some personal responsibility for your bill," he said. "I don't mean to sound cold about it, but people have rent, food, clothing and other bills to pay."

He said 25,000 BG&E customers are on a Utility Service Protection Plan, which allows them to repay delinquent bills interest-free for up to four years. An estimated 20,000 additional customers could use the plan, he said, but they must first qualify for it.

BG&E also offers credits between $7 and $12 per month for enrolling in the protection plan and paying a bill on time, he said.

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