Dark day ahead for many with unpaid electric bills April 1 is shut-off date in BGE spring crackdown

March 19, 1996|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

Benjamin Dickens' five months on borrowed time expires April 1.

That's when Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. ends its late fall and winter moratorium on shutting off service to customers who have outstanding bills.

For thousands of people like Mr. Dickens, April 1 means the time to choose between lighting or food, hot water or paying the rent.

"I try not to worry about it because that will only make your situation worse," said Mr. Dickens, 34, who has cancer and lives alone in a Northeast Baltimore apartment.

"I'll try to give them [a payment] to show that I'm trying."

On any given day, about 150,000 BGE customers risk having their power turned off because of nonpayment, said Tom Pellegrini, BGE's supervisor of residential credit.

However, from Nov. 1 to April 1 the utility is less likely to discontinue service, especially in homes where children, elderly or sick residents live, he said.

Ellen Franck, general supervisor of BGE's customer assistance section, said very few customers have their service discontinued during the winter.

"I'm talking single digits," she said.

The company could not say how many customers may lose their service after April 1. Last year after the moratorium ended, BGE sent letters to 8,000 customers telling them their service was at risk.

Hoping to stave off gas and electric cutoffs, the state Department of Human Resources is taking applications from needy residents for assistance from the Maryland Energy Assistance Program.

Sue Fitzsimmons, of the city's Department of Social Services, said crisis centers are located in East and West Baltimore, where residents may seek assistance af- ter receiving a cutoff notice.

So far this year, more than 54,000 families have received an average of $170 toward their energy bill.

Although power shut-offs by BGE are less likely during winter months, they still occur at homes where customers have large outstanding bills or where fraud may have occurred, Mr. Pellegrini said.

Before the utility can discontinue service, it must file an affidavit with the state Public Service Commission assuring that no small children, sick or elderly residents live at the residence.

William Rawlings, who lives in East Baltimore, had his power shut off for two days, then had it restored after making a partial payment. His bill, he said, totaled nearly $2,000 and had not been paid for more than a year.

"You get warned, but sometimes there's nothing you can do about a warning if you don't have the money," said Mr. Rawlings, 35, who rents an apartment and lives alone.

And although Mr. Dickens said his bill is fairly low about $200 he said he has received turnoff letters because the bill continually carries a balance.

"I'll just have to borrow and go into debt," he said.

Luanne McKenna, of the Maryland Office of People's Counsel, representing residential utility customers, said her organization has investigated 300 cases this winter where the power has either been turned off or a shut-off was threatened. About 75 more cases are pending.

In past years, at least two house fires a year have occurred in Baltimore houses where the power was shut off, said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman.

Every year, at least one fatality is directly related to electrical cutoffs, he said.

Pub Date: 3/19/96

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