Expo draws 500 seeking aid with energy bills

Some attendees had lost gas, electricity service

grant information given

January 21, 2004|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Outside New Shiloh Baptist Church yesterday, icy winds were a stinging reminder of why gas and electricity are so important at this time of the year - and inside, close to 500 people were seeking financial assistance to make sure they get back or don't lose the utility services they need to keep warm this winter.

Many attending the Baltimore City Energy Expo, held at the West Baltimore church, were close to losing services because of unpaid bills. Some had lost services, as well as the ability to protect their families from the bitter cold.

Lisa Foster, 35, was one of those with a cold house. The mother of four said she lost services at her West Baltimore home in October - that her ex-husband had failed to pay the couple's gas and electric bill - and spent several hours yesterday trying to find a way to get them turned back on.

"I'm still in good spirits," said Foster, who has been staying with her children at her mother's house. "I guess I can cope with it. We are all in one piece. We are not lighting candles."

Still, Foster, a nursing assistant, said she will need help paying the $877 bill from the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. She recently paid $300 to settle a bill her sister owed BGE, she said.

"There's no way I can pay all of that," Foster said. "Not now."

People who attended the expo learned that there are energy grants available to help cover heating bills. The recent cold snap, coupled with subzero wind chills, has forced many residents to crank up the heat. The results, in many cases, are higher-than-usual utility bills.

For those on a fixed income, "it's hard to decide what to get to first: the groceries, the gas bill or the mortgage," said Charles L. Fowlkes, energy program administrator for the city's Office of Home Energy Programs, which sponsored the event along with the Office of People's Counsel of the Maryland Public Service Commission, BGE and the state Department of Human Resources.

Fowlkes said many of those at the expo qualified for aid through the Electric Universal Service Program or Maryland Energy Assistance Program. Eligibility for the programs is based on income and household size. In most cases, residents cover part of the cost of heating their homes. However, in extreme cases, heating bills are wiped clean.

"I've seen bills as high as $14,000," said Fowlkes, who has more than 25 years' experience in the home energy field. "A lot of people don't know how to read their bills. They don't understand why their bills are so high."

Counselors at the expo explained how to lower monthly gas and electric bills by caulking drafty doors, closing off unused rooms and setting the furnace thermostat at a lower temperature at night.

For some residents, a review of their utility bills by a counselor revealed surprising information.

Sonja Harriday-Parker, 35, of Northwest Baltimore learned that a gas company with which she used to have a service contract was still billing her $160 a month through BGE even though she had canceled the service in October.

"They are ripping me off," said Harriday-Parker, who is unemployed. "Here I am, stressed out about this bill. I didn't even know that was going on."

Stella Carter, a human services worker for the city, told Harriday-Parker to keep calling the company until they stop billing her.

"You have to keep after them," Carter said. "We want to get you out of that contract."

Another Energy Expo is being planned for next month. Information: 410-396-5555.

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