December 23, 2009 in Idaho

More residents struggle to keep heat on

Shut-offs, energy assistance increasing
By The Spokesman-Review
 

The sluggish economy is affecting Inland Northwest residents’ ability to heat their homes.

Utilities are reporting higher rates of delinquent payments and shut-offs. And entities that provide energy assistance have been besieged with pleas for help.

“I hear from people who’ve never before requested our services,” said Ron Hardin, spokesman for SNAP, a Spokane nonprofit. “They have lost their jobs or they have catastrophic illness in their families. These folks come to me almost apologetically. They’ve never needed help, but they find themselves in dire straits.”

Some are seniors. Instead of losing a job, their retirement investments dropped in value, he said.

SNAP has doled out more than $2 million in energy assistance to low-income households in Spokane County since Oct. 25. That’s a record for the nonprofit, which usually doesn’t hit that payout level until mid-January, Hardin said. More than 7,500 families have sought help with heating bills.

SNAP also helped 822 households that had received shut-off notices from their utility or ran out of firewood or heating oil. That help came through a separate emergency program that paid out $176,638.

Meanwhile, shut-offs are on the rise at Avista Corp. Seven percent of Avista’s electric and natural gas customers had their power disconnected for nonpayment of bills over the past year. The utility serves 470,000 customers in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and parts of Oregon.

At Inland Power and Light, delinquent payments have risen by 20 percent, though the rate of shut-offs is holding steady from last year, said Dan Villalobos, an energy services specialist. At Kootenai Electric Cooperative, the shut-off rate has fallen by 4 percent, but the number of customers receiving energy assistance has grown by 33 percent.

Nationally, a record 8.3 million U.S. households got help paying their heating and cooling costs over the past year, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. In Washington and Oregon, the number of families receiving energy assistance increased by more than 50 percent.

Utility representatives said they try to work with people who fall behind on paying their bills, contacting them to set up payment schedules or steering them to agencies such as SNAP, which expects to distribute about $8.9 million in federal energy assistance and other funds this heating season.

“We never want that disconnect to happen,” said Debbie Simock, an Avista spokeswoman. “We give customers lots of opportunities to forestall it.”

The utility also has designated representatives that work with “vulnerable” customers on payment issues, Simock said. Those include seniors in fragile health, families with medical crises and people on life support.

Idaho has a moratorium on winter shut-offs for families with children or elderly or disabled members. The moratorium runs from December through the end of February. But the Idaho Public Utilities Commission encourages people to work out payment plans with their utilities so they don’t get too far behind on their bill. “All that comes due on March 1,” said Gene Fadness, the commission spokesman.

Heating bills typically peak in January or February.

“We’ve already had 10 days of very cold weather,” said SNAP’s Hardin. “We see this (heating season) as challenging (as) if not more challenging than last year.”

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