Today's Energy Expo offers help with utility bills

Winter is painful time for service cutoffs

January 07, 2003|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

At the first sight of snow, Joan Toler heads for the closet. Living without electricity, the 50-year-old retired nurse has to pull on some pantyhose, boots and four sweaters to keep warm. Five blankets help, too.

Toler, who drives a taxicab, can't pay the $2,800 that Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. says she owes and she disputes. Her service was cut off Nov. 2.

"It's just crazy," said Toler, who says she brings home about $1,200 a month. "I'm freezing."

As temperatures drop and fuel bills rise this winter, state agencies and utilities are aggressively seeking families and residents such as Toler who need help paying utility bills. Officials are looking to avoid a repeat of two years ago when natural gas prices soared as temperatures fell, causing utility bills to double and triple. Thousands lost service in the spring for nonpayment of their winter bills.

Today, the city will hold its first Energy Expo at New Shiloh Baptist Church in the 2100 block of N. Monroe St. in an effort to reach hundreds of new applicants for energy assistance. Similar expos held in Prince George's and Montgomery counties last year took in about 400 applicants each, a majority of whom were newcomers.

In addition, the federal Department of Energy has been promoting its weatherization program, which helps low-income families caulk windows, insulate attics and replace old furnaces and water heaters with energy-efficient equipment.

And state agencies such as the Office of People's Counsel (OPC) and Office of Home Energy Programs have been hitting the streets with fliers, individual home visits, community seminars and bus advertisements to get the word out that assistance is available.

"Our number of applicants went down because the weather was warmer last year," said Ralph Markus, acting director of the Office of Home Energy Programs for the state. "But it is colder now. We've already had a major snow. I know there are predictions that we'll have a more severe winter this year. We've also got a bad economy, many have been laid off. And you never know what will happen with fuel prices.

"It took people a long time to recover from large winter bills in 2001," Markus said. "We're definitely trying to be more pro-active this year. There's no question about it. We want to reach the people who need help before they have an emergency situation."

Through the expo, residents can apply for a variety of grants and also find help with other problems from various agencies, including the Department of Human Resources, Department of Social Services, Fuel Fund and the Commission on Aging.

BGE, the city Office of Home Energy Programs, the OPC and the Public Service Commission are sponsoring the event.

"We don't like to turn off any clients," said Jim Thierer, senior community services administrator for BGE. "Our interest is for clients to avail themselves of the programs that are out there. People who come to the expo won't have to wait two hours to be seen.

"They'll be in and out in 15 minutes in some cases. If clients are able to access all the programs that are out there, the number of customers in crisis diminishes dramatically. That's something we all want."

The Maryland Energy Assistance Program, which received $26 million from the federal government last year, awards grants to residents who need help paying for electricity, natural gas, fuel oil, wood or kerosene.

The state's Electric Universal Service Program, which is in its third year, has $34 million available to residents who need help with their electricity bills. EUSP is up for re-funding this legislative session.

About 75,000 people apply for grants each year, Markus said.

Individuals such as Toler, who said she was incorrectly billed for service at a previous address, can also talk with the Office of People's Counsel regarding help with utility bill disputes. Toler has been working with the OPC since November.

"These bills are getting higher and higher, but their income isn't going up," said Charles Fowlkes, director of the Baltimore City Home Energy Programs. "They're having a harder and harder time trying to pay their rent, their bills and in some cases for seniors, their medication.

"We know that people tend to be very resourceful," Fowlkes said.

"They use ovens for warmth and candles for light. The thing that gets me more than anything is for a tragedy to happen when there are resources out there to help them."

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