Some BGE customers fear a frigid spring

End of moratorium on service shutoffs met with protests, worry

April 01, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

"Service denial" is a phrase that hangs like a chill over Elnora Watson's small rowhouse on North Rosedale Street in West Baltimore.

Watson and scores of others in the service territory of Constellation Energy Group, parent company of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., face a grim situation after a winter moratorium on overdue heating bills ended at 12:01 this morning.

With the arrival of April, Constellation can beginning shutting off gas and electricity to customers who haven't paid their bills.

"Time is running out for everybody," Watson, 56, said last week, dressed warmly in her cold living room. She recently received a BGE bill for $2,631.06.

"I'm at the point where I should be enjoying my life, not worrying about paying BGE," said Watson, who is looking for a job in medical billing and raising a young granddaughter.

To publicize the plight of those unable to settle their electricity bills, the Committee to Stop High Gas and Electric Bills held a news conference Friday in Watson's home, and about 250 people participated in a candlelight protest yesterday outside BGE's headquarters at Liberty and Lexington streets.

"When we asked how many had gotten turnoff notices, the majority of the people raised their hands," said protest organizer Sharon Ceci.

Ceci received a turnoff notice this weekend. Watson fears the same.

The worst of it for Watson, she said, is that she is a chronic asthmatic, and must keep an electric nebulizer -- a device that helps her breathe -- nearby at all times. Without it, Watson said, "I'll have to go live in the [emergency room]."

This winter, the cost of heat and electricity for her three-bedroom, two-story rowhouse reached as high as $398 monthly.

BGE officials said the utility does not set the market price of natural gas, which more than doubled nationwide this winter. BGE is merely a delivery system, they said. The Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates public utilities in the state, decided not to extend the winter moratorium, the BGE officials said.

Vicki Strittmater, a Constellation spokeswoman, said, "We certainly understand [gas prices are higher], and we'll try to work with people. It's better to stay in touch than simply not pay the bill."

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