Utility fund to get boost

Aid arrives in wake of fire that killed 4 in house gone dark

More needed, some say

$34 million infusion offshoot of law on utility deregulation

June 15, 2000|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

A major new source of funding to help families cope with utility bills and power shutoffs will become available next month, three weeks after a fire that killed four people living by candlelight in a Baltimore rowhouse.

As part of an electric power deregulation law passed by the legislature last year, $34 million in energy aid will be available to eligible Marylanders for paying bills and weatherizing homes beginning July 3.

The program will enable households with incomes of no more than $12,525 for a single person or $25,525 for a family of four to receive grants toward reducing their utility bills. The payments will be made directly to the customer's power company.

One rationale behind the fund, known as the Electric Universal Service Program, is to help ensure that the newly competitive electric industry will be less tempted to restrict its marketing efforts and product offerings to high- and middle-income areas.

"It's to make people of low income attractive to electric providers," said Erlene Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources, which is administering the program.

Consumer advocates say the fund will help low-income customers avoid power cutoffs but that this infusion of money cannot itself stave off tragedies such as the one last week.

For one thing, they say, the amount of aid is too small, even when combined with the millions in the Maryland Energy Assistance Program and the Fuel Fund of Maryland.

In addition to those amounts, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., whose parent company, Constellation Energy Group, took in $3.9 billion in revenue last year, assigns $11 million a year to payment-assistance funds.

Luanne McKenna, the assistant state people's counsel, said her agency had lobbied for a fund that would meet the estimated need, which is about $80 million. Her agency represents residential utility customers.

McKenna said that although sensitivity to the issue was heightened after a fire in 1994 that killed nine people in a Hollins Street rowhouse, BGE has in recent years become increasingly assertive about terminating service. It is also increasingly intransigent about establishing payment arrangements for customers in financial trouble, she said.

"Certainly, there are egregious circumstances where the hammer of termination is required, but once that happens, we certainly advocate a reasonable payment plan be developed as soon as possible," McKenna said.

BGE spokeswoman Brenda L. Pettigrew said, "We're a regulated utility. Our collection guidelines are in accordance with [state] regulations."

If anything, Pettigrew said, debt-burdened customers can sometimes benefit from a power cutoff because when power is off, utility expenses come to a halt.

Defenders of the poor said there is logic in that argument.

"The good news is, we're not getting hit by $5,000 bills, because they're turning people off sooner," said Mary D'Ambrogi, director of membership at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and a member of the policy group Energy Advocates.

It is unclear how many Baltimoreans are living without electricity, but there are indications that several thousand people in the city are either in that situation or close to it.

More than 25,000 city residents seek emergency electricity funds each year. The Rev. Melvin B. Tuggle II of the Garden of Prayer Baptist Church in Waverly said that at least 50 people a month ask his church for help in paying gas or electric bills, and that at least $300 a month is spent out of church funds to meet these requests.

"There's a constant flow of people without gas and electric," Tuggle said. "People begin to prioritize. BGE is just not that important compared to food."

Tuggle said the frequency of such entreaties has grown to the point that pastors are regularly consulting each other to ensure that someone seeking utility assistance isn't also receiving funds from another church.

BGE officials and social service workers agree that one major challenge is making low-income customers aware of how they can keep their energy from being cut off, even if they are behind on payments.

Pettigrew said BGE sends notices to customers who do not pay their bills, notifying them that their power could be cut off in 15 days.

The company is willing to assist customers, she said, adding, "If they call us, we will advise them of agencies to turn to for help."

Pettigrew said that in the case of Saturday's fatal fire on Amity Street, the customers moved into a home that, because of a prior resident's arrears, had no gas or electric service, but they never contacted BGE.

D'Ambrogi said the poor often feel that they have little to gain from getting in touch with institutions such as BGE, even when help is being offered.

"The majority of poor people don't know what they qualify for, and they're too scared to ask," D'Ambrogi said.

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