Rising electric bills elicit fury, desperation

Advocates fear new costs will push some working poor into homelessness



For Baltimoreans living on a fixed income, one question has overwhelmed most other concerns this week: Where will they find the money to pay a 72 percent increase in their electricity bills?

"Concerned is not the word. People are sick," said Jesse Peaker, a West Baltimore retiree. "72 percent? They've got to be out of their minds. Somebody is, and I don't think it's me."

As news about soaring electricity costs spread across the city this week, residents expressed a mixture of fury, frustration and bewilderment about the increases -- an expected $743 a year for the average Baltimore Gas and Electric residential customer.

The increase is slated to go into effect in July when legislated rate caps expire.

"People are going to be in crisis. They're not going to be able to sustain their households. They're not going to have enough money for rising costs," said Peggy Vick, the director of volunteers and family services at the Salvation Army in Baltimore.

"There are a lot of people in our society who have to choose between having electricity or food or getting their prescriptions filled -- what we consider the basics in life."

Administrators at social service agencies that work with the most vulnerable citizens are bracing for the worst. They say they are already overwhelmed with clients seeking help because they are unable to pay for their utilities, and the price increases are likely to inspire a fresh wave of desperation.

Many people in Baltimore already spend 50 percent of their income on housing, said Laura Gillis, the president and CEO of Baltimore Homeless Services Inc.

"These increases in fuel prices will be a real hardship for people who are just making it in housing right now," she said. "There's concern about increasing homelessness."

The Samaritan Center in Baltimore, a program administered by Catholic Charities and St. Vincent de Paul, is already seeing a huge spike in the number of people seeking financial assistance with their BGE bills, said Kerrie Burch-DeLuca, a Catholic Charities spokeswoman.

The center, which opens at 8:30 a.m., had to close its doors at 10 a.m. every day this week because the staff couldn't process additional clients. Because of the rush, organizers started taking appointments rather than working on a first-come, first-served basis.

"People are quite frantic," Burch-DeLuca said. "These people are working poor. They are employed, they do have an income. But the utilities segment of their incomes has outpaced what they can pay."

Evil now, evil later

This week, the state Public Service Commission threw its weight behind a plan to allow customers who can't pay the higher bills at once to delay them and pay BGE 5 percent interest.

But that plan has done little to quell anxieties. Many critics view it as a choice between evil now or evil later.

"I'm on a fixed income, in a wheelchair. I just had heart surgery. There's no way. There's no way we can make it on what we get," said Velma Moseley, 63, who lives in West Baltimore with her sister and four great-grandchildren.

"By the time we pay the rent, there's not much left to pay for food. We've got to eat. We've got to pay our other bills. We can't let the telephone go."

Electricity is crucial for her, she said, because she needs to charge the wheelchair she relies on to move around. Her house has electric heat. And over the summer, she has to use the central air conditioning because she and two of the kids suffer from upper respiratory problems. She already pays about $280 a month for gas and electricity, she said.

"What can I cut back on?" she said. "I don't know what we're going to do. ... I can't work. I don't have nobody to give me anything."

Peaker, who lives nearby, was on his stoop with his sister, thinking about having a cigarette.

"Half the people in this area" -- he motioned around him -- "a lot of times there's no male in the house. ... They don't have no job. They're collecting food stamps. They can't afford a 72 percent increase."

A retired police officer who collects a pension and social security, Peaker, 72, said his BGE bill is already between $300 and $400 a month.

As it is, he only occasionally runs a fan in the summer, Peaker said, and he doesn't see a way of personally cutting back. He's convinced that deregulation was a big mistake.

"They never had no business doing it in the first place," he said. "If you're going to play that kind of game, put it on a ballot."

Rather die

His sister, Judith Hallums, said she might have to think about moving to smaller quarters in a senior center, but the thought fills her with dread. "I hope I die before I get to that point," she said.

As for conservation, residents said they would try to turn lights off, cut back on air conditioning and draw the shades.

But many also said there is a limit to what conservation can do for them and what they are willing to do.

"I'm not going to sweat," Sherman Jones, a 43-year-old dry wall finisher, said as he waited for the bus.

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