Help With The Heat

Aid to pay bills is available, but don't wait too long to apply

November 16, 2008|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,liz.kay@baltsun.com

Even before the mercury fell and the economy tanked, thousands more Marylanders were seeking help with utility bills than in years past.

"We've had an upswing since probably last April," said Peggy Vick, director of family and volunteer services for the Salvation Army. Given the rising costs of food and fuel, "as soon as the BGE rates went up, people ... were hard-pressed in order to pay their bills."

But help from state programs, nonprofits and charities is available for struggling families who meet income guidelines. Though some donations are down, in part because of the weak economy, advocates say assistance can still be found for families in need - especially if they take early steps to get it.

The Fuel Fund of Maryland expects to distribute $1 million this year - half of what it gave away last year - after several three-year grants expired. The nonprofit group will pursue more state and federal money that might become available.

And at the Salvation Army, the number of donations has stayed the same, but the amount has decreased, officials say.

Although nonprofit coffers may be smaller, President George W. Bush signed into law this fall the largest Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program allocation in recent years. As a result, the Maryland Energy Assistance Program has received more than $101 million - triple last year's amount.

Contacting the utility company is the first step to getting a handle on out-of-control bills, according to the Fuel Fund, Salvation Army and Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.

"Customers should never wait until they're in crisis to contact us," said Linda Foy, a BGE spokeswoman. "Certainly we will work with them to try to help them with their bill."

Staff at the Fuel Fund and Salvation Army stressed that consumers should act as soon as possible after receiving a turnoff notice.

"We realize it's only going to continue to escalate," said Maj. Roger Coulson, Baltimore region commander of the Salvation Army.

Often, families will make choices to get them through December's celebrations, and "on the opposite side of the holiday, they realize it's not going to be as easy as they thought," Coulson said.

"People in need are juggling multiple needs," said Michael Lee, program director of the Fuel Fund, which disburses donations and BGE credits. "Sometimes it's a matter of prioritizing what is most urgent."

Many of those are the working poor, Lee said. "They have jobs. They're working. They're doing their best to make their obligations, but they are stretched to the limits."

As of last month, about 10 percent of the 1.1 million residential BGE customers were more than 30 days delinquent in paying their bills, Foy said. Though that percentage is about the same as last year, the average outstanding balance is $700, compared with $500 last year, she said.

Already this year, 34,000 customers have had their utility service cut off, compared with 23,000 customers in all of 2007, Foy said. She said not all of that increase was a result of the soft economy.

And there are other signs of increased demand.

Baltimore's Department of Social Services, one of two organizations in the city to submit applications for the Fuel Fund, switched to an appointment-based system last month because dozens of people would line up before dawn to try to get assistance.

Under the new system, applicants may come to the office between 8 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. to schedule an appointment, said Nancy Lineman, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees social services offices statewide.

The prior system created predawn lines outside the Talmadge Branch Building off Harford Road, where Geraldine Clifton arrived one October day at 4 a.m. on her fourth visit to seek assistance.

"It's heartbreaking to see children out here in the wee hours of the morning," said Clifton, a Sharp-Leadenhall resident.

Phyllis Diggs, who lives on Eutaw Street, said her electricity bills skyrocketed to more than $1,000 a month after she moved in January.

"I'm scared to turn the heat on because my bill's so high," she said. "My apartment's kind of chilly. I've got to walk around with a coat on."

To help screen more Fuel Fund applicants, the Department of Social Services is increasing the number of caseworkers from seven to nine, Lineman said.

And within several months, the department hopes to move to a telephone screening system so people won't have to come in to schedule an appointment, Lineman said.

Right now, there is a two-week wait for appointments, said Lee, the program director. And he encouraged those who have scheduled an appointment to keep it - or risk having to reapply.

The screening process is necessary to determine whether applicants meet income limits.

The Fuel Fund's eligibility requirements vary based on the federal poverty income guidelines. For example, a family of four earning less than $42,400 would qualify for aid. The same family earning less than $37,100 would also be eligible for the Maryland Energy Assistance Program.

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