Winter's bite felt as utility bills soar

Households struggle to stay warm

some seek payment help

January 21, 2001|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Charles W. Davis Sr., a disabled Vietnam veteran, says he never asked for charity in his life - until recently, when cold weather and rising fuel prices conspired to drive his heating bills into triple digits.

Last month, Davis says, he received a $252 heating bill for his two-bedroom Owings Mills apartment - much more than he usually pays. A lapsed Catholic, he appealed to area churches, garnering some money but not enough to pay the whole bill. He is bracing himself for the next bill.

Across the state and the country, an unusually cold winter and high fuel prices have sent energy bills soaring. Groups that provide relief for the poor say they won't have enough money this year to help everyone pay their heating bills. The Public Service Commission held an emergency hearing last week on service terminations to low-income customers.

Even working-class and middle-class families have felt the pinch, juggling budgets, turning down thermostats and donning long underwear to keep their fuel bills manageable.

The weather may have warmed up of late, fuel experts say, but the bills from this month have yet to roll in. And with spring two months away, more cold and snowy weather is sure to come.

"Before this winter, I was one to take care of it myself," says Davis, 60. "It's hard when you're on a fixed income and you're trying to keep up."

George Coling, executive director of the nonprofit National Fuel Funds Network in Washington, says people are struggling to pay especially high bills nationwide.

"There are two issues," he says. "One's the weather, the other is poverty. So in some poor Southern states or on Indian reservations, the need driven by poverty is disproportionate than it would be if you just consider the weather."

Even those with the means to pay their bills are feeling the pinch - and the cold.

William Kilgour, 64, a retired telephone installer who lives in Ocean City, received a heating bill this month for $431 - compared with $192 the previous month, and less than $50 the month before that.

Kilgour heats his house with propane, which has gone up from $1.21 a gallon in September 1999 to about $2 a gallon now - a 65 percent increase, according to the Office of Home Energy Programs, a federally funded agency that expects to help 70,000 needy Maryland families pay for heat this year.

Reconsidering expenses

"We're going to pay our bills, but we're retired and that will take away from something else," says Kilgour, whose wife, Alice, worked for Montgomery County schools.

Kilgour says he and his wife might have to cancel their vacation this year or perhaps put off maintenance on their car and truck. Meanwhile, they are trying to heat the house with firewood instead of propane.

"It throws you off," Kilgour says. "We're living in a little bit of a colder home, and it's very embarrassing if you want to invite some people over."

This winter has been 43 percent colder than last and 22 percent colder than average, says A. J. O'Brien of the Office of Home Energy Programs. At the same time, the prices of oil, natural gas and propane have skyrocketed. In Baltimore, natural gas cost 40 cents per thermal unit in September 1999 and this month cost 87 cents - an increase of 218 percent.

Help `never enough'

"Our help is never enough," O'Brien says. "That's the predicament. Our help can take some of the terrible crisis out of their expenses, but it still leaves them with a lot to pay."

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. had fewer low-income terminations in November and December than during the same period in 1999, said Brenda Pettigrew, a spokeswoman for the company. She said that was because BGE does not terminate service in colder weather, and last winter was warmer.

Mary Ellen Vanni, executive director of the Fuel Fund of Maryland, says many utilities said at the Public Service Commission's emergency hearing Wednesday that they don't terminate service when the weather is below freezing. But she expects there will be a slew of terminations when the weather gets warmer if the bills remain unpaid. That will probably be around March, she said, just when federal and state monies run out.

`Extreme' weather expected

"We are expecting very, very, very extreme weather conditions this winter," she said. "The fuel fund itself receives 50 phone calls a day." The fund helps people pay their heating and electric bills by matching $1 for every $2 paid by the customer.

But people can come to the nonprofit fund only once a year, Vanni says, and even so, the money runs out every year. She worries that the combination of severe weather and high fuel prices will leave many people literally out in the cold. She warns of increased risk of fire, from people trying to heat their homes with ovens, and hypothermia, especially among the elderly, who have poor circulation.

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