Energy fund to be used to help keep lights on

$34 million in aid covers electricity bills only

Regional news

July 05, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County may be known for its affluence, but some of its poorest residents can' t afford electricity, and a few owe more than $2,000, which they have to pay to get the lights turned back on.

Until now, the county's human services agencies have had a hard time cobbling together small amounts of money from different sources to help people who owe big debts, but a new $34 million energy-aid fund gives big utility debtors in Howard the same access to aid as poor people anywhere in Maryland.

"With this new program, you can effectively pay that off," said Larry E. Hunt, director of program policy and development for Howard's Community Action Council. "People get cut off more frequently. This year, we've seen more very high bills."

He warned, however, that the new money will pay only electricity bills, not those for gas or heating oil, for which there are other programs. That's because the energy-aid fund that became available Saturday is the product of a General Assembly deal opening the electricity field to competition. Because of a lawsuit filed by a New Jersey utility, distribution of the money is being delayed at least until a court hearing this month, but state officials are going ahead with their efforts to organize.

"We will be carrying on as usual. Our hope is that this will all clear up soon," said Elyn Jones, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources, which administers the fund.

The average grant to a family in Howard is $251, Hunt said, and some families who owe more than $1,000 and have lost service give up on regaining it except by diversion or through an illegal hookup.

Hunt said people who owe $2,000 would normally have to come up with a quarter of the amount themselves, then might get several hundred dollars from several energy-assistance funds and still need to find a few hundred dollars more, perhaps from a church charity fund.

People seeking help range from a mother of seven children to elderly people - sometimes homeowners - with limited incomes, Hunt said. "We believe there are a lot more of those people there."

The job of helping them has been a difficult one, he said, complicated by what Hunt called Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s "inconsistent" cut-off policies. "We had a person who came in who just got cut off with a bill over $2,000. We had another person cut off who owed $269." It's hard to tell, he said, what the utility company will do, or when it will do it. "We just hope for consistency."

Still, Hunt said, despite his strong desire to help, agency officials know that "if you use a service, you're responsible for paying."

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