Thousands of low-income families in Central Maryland, who are already behind on winter bill payments because of fuel prices that doubled and tripled, are in danger of utility service shut-offs this month just as summer turns up the heat and air conditioners run full blast.
There are 150,751 customers in the Baltimore metropolitan area who are late on payments, owing a combined $234 million in winter bills.
But of that number, the problem is more acute for 12,000 low-income households that owe more than $7 million - a 75 percent increase compared with last year - according to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
In Harford County, for instance, officials said they are seeing 20 to 25 people a day who are unable to pay their energy bills.
"We're in a crisis right now," said Pat Harkins, executive director of the Harford County Community Action Agency, which has spent $2.8 million in energy assistance this year to more than 3,900 families, a 33 percent jump in the number of people compared with last year. "We've been completely overwhelmed. Now, we're seeing a lot of middle-income people come in, too, and they're not qualified for most programs.
"The other counties are experiencing similar problems," she added. "That's how hard the winter season hit people."
Agency officials from Baltimore and the surrounding counties described similarly chaotic scenes of families searching for help. The Fuel Fund of Maryland, a private, charitable program to assist the needy with utility payments, has exhausted its money for the year. It recently mailed a letter to all households asking for more donations to help families get through the summer.
Nationwide, the need for energy assistance for the poor is growing. At least 4.3 million low-income households in 19 states are at risk of power cut-offs because they can't afford to pay their bills, according to a recent study by the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.
"We're dealing with a very serious problem," said Jeff Genzer, counsel to the directors association.
The past winter "was an enormous hit for people, but especially on the low-income side who tend to spend at least three times more of their income on energy costs than medium-income Americans. When energy prices go up, it has a telescoping effect for poor people. It's going to get rough through the rest of the year, especially this winter."
Programs not enough
In addition to rising natural gas costs, an abnormally cold start of winter also had electricity customers using more energy.
Low-income customers in Maryland were dealt another blow by computer glitches that delayed processing grant applications from the Department of Human Resources Office of Home Energy Programs, which administers two major energy assistance programs with a budget of about $65 million a year:
The Maryland Energy Assistance Program is a federally funded program focused on heating assistance. Consumers can apply throughout the year for a one-time grant, but new money won't be available again until October. There's about $2 million left until Sept. 30.
The Electric Universal Service Program is funded by Maryland commercial, industrial and residential ratepayers, and provides assistance for electric customers. The fiscal year for the electric program began July 1, which makes $34 million available to those in need. But people receive only a one-time grant, and the money may not be used for natural gas bills incurred over the winter.
But consumer advocates say that a grant from both programs will not cover the winter bills that low-income customers encountered, which averaged about $829 per household.
The problems became so severe that in February the Public Service Commission ordered gas and electric companies in the state not to cut off utility service to low-income customers until after the end of March. But three months after that moratorium ended, many low-income customers are still unable to pay.
In April and May, according to BGE, utility service was cut off to 14,954 residential households because they were behind on bills, although the utility said service to 75 percent of those has been restored. Of the total, BGE said 449 were designated low-income families.
In reality, BGE and consumer advocates say it is difficult to track the exact number of low-income households unless they are enrolled in an assistance program. Currently, BGE officials said, there are 37,000 households receiving energy assistance - which does not include public housing residents - but there are thousands more who need help but never seek or don't know how to find assistance.
As the bills mount, customers have been quick to point the finger at BGE, accusing the utility of gouging consumers and being inflexible about allowing people to pay off their bills in smaller increments.