Protesters want mayor to halt all BGE winter utility shut-offs

Company says it works to help residents with bills

January 13, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

Protesters descended on City Hall yesterday to demand that Mayor Martin O'Malley order a halt to all utility shut-offs of gas and electricity during winter months.

"How can a greedy and callous billion-dollar company like Baltimore Gas and Electric be allowed to put profits before the safety of the people?" asked Renee Washington, one of about 20 protesters. "How long will it be before the mayor and the city government take action to protect our children, elderly and the poor?"

She was referring to the New Year's Eve fire in East Baltimore that claimed the lives of Davon Dortch, 11, and his brother, Fidel Russel, 7. Fire officials said that electricity at the house in the 400 block of N. Luzerne Ave. had been shut off since Dec. 19 and that the fire was caused by a candle the family was burning for light.

In winter, Baltimore often registers one or more fatal fires in houses that have had utility service cut off for failure to pay bills. Some of those fires are caused by candles or other makeshift lighting or heating devices. Others start when an extension cord strung from a neighbor's house overheats, officials said.

For years, the mayor's office had an understanding with BGE that no electricity would be shut off because of nonpayment between Oct. 31 and March 31, according to O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory.

"It is a private company; we cannot force them to do anything they don't want to do," Guillory said, adding O'Malley had "worked hard" to persuade BGE to renew the moratorium.

But BGE spokesman Robert L. Gould said last night that "there has never been such an agreement" with the city, only a moratorium on cutoffs - most recently from February to March of 2001 - imposed by the state Public Service Commission.

Linda Foy, another BGE spokeswoman, said the utility has a policy that forbids turnoffs on any day when the temperature has been below freezing for 24 hours. But beyond that, there is no grace period.

The PSC also requires BGE to vouch in advance of any turnoff that "termination does not constitute a threat to the life or health of residential occupants."

Foy would not release the number of people whose electricity has been cut off in recent weeks for nonpayment. But a recent PSC report said that thousands of poor people are behind in their monthly payments and therefore potentially subject to service termination. The document put the number of BGE's 2002-2003 winter season terminations at 2,698.

Yesterday's protest was organized by All People's Congress, an affiliate of the Workers World Party, a socialist group. The congress has a history of waging wars against BGE . Two years ago, its allegations of unfair service terminations prompted an investigation by the Public Service Commission.

Steven J. Kearney, O'Malley's policy adviser, said the utility and city are cooperating - with BGE providing the addresses of houses about to lose service so that officials can try to get the residents help in paying bills.

Public Service Commission rules require BGE to make two attempts to contact residents for the same purpose before service is turned off.

A number of programs exist to help low-income customers with their bills. and BGE said it dealt with more than 15,400 customers and their families last year through workshops and community outreach.

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