SAGLE, Idaho – The calendar says it’s spring, but Dave Ross and Patty Earnest are still digging out from under their winter heating bills. Medical bills for Ross, who has congestive heart failure and lung disease, put the couple behind on their Avista Utilities payments last fall and winter.
After making minimal payments through the winter, their past due balance ballooned to $1,442 in February.
When a shutoff notice arrived in the mail, the couple scrambled to find a solution.
They’ve managed to reduce their bill to $428 through a federal energy assistance grant, private donations and several of their own payments. But they’re still in arrears and deeply worried about how they’ll pay off the remaining balance. Ross, 66, requires oxygen.
“If we can’t make the payments, the power can be shut off,” Earnest said.
Reckoning has arrived for many Inland Northwest utility customers who fell behind on their bills last winter.
SNAP will see about 14,000 Spokane County residents who need help paying their heating bills during a seven-month period that ends in mid-May, said Carol Weltz, energy operations coordinator for the nonprofit, which administers energy assistance grants.
Subzero temperatures this winter also led to a surge in households seeking help through a separate emergency assistance program. “Some people saw their bills almost double,” Weltz said.
In Idaho’s five northern counties, about 7,400 families have received one-time heating assistance payments since October. The figure is up about 10 percent from the prior year, though the increase could be the result of program changes, said Mark Haberman, a spokesman for Community Action Partnership, which administers the grants in the Idaho Panhandle.
Haberman said the agency typically sees a spike in requests for help at this time of year, as a winter moratorium on shutoffs expires. In Idaho, households with children, elderly or infirm members can sign up for the moratorium. But it ends the last day of February, and outstanding balances become due.
Avista sends out more than 500,000 utility bills each month to customers in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and southern Oregon. Over a year, about 10 percent of the total bills are past due and may go into some type of collection notice, said Debbie Simock, an Avista spokeswoman.
Before a shutoff occurs, customers receive two notices and a phone call. But the shutoff is averted if the customer calls Avista and works out a payment plan, Simock sad.
“We never want a customer to be in a situation where they’re facing a disconnect,” she said. “We work with them every way we can to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
That includes a customer service team that helps connect clients to outside sources of financial assistance, Simock said.
When shutoffs do occur, 95 percent of the accounts are reconnected within 24 hours, she said. The customers are able to make payment arrangements with the utility, receive an assistance grant or pay off the bill themselves.
For Ross and Earnest, however, trying to resolve their outstanding Avista bill has been a long and difficult process.
Their financial troubles stemmed from an escalation of Ross’ health problems over the past three years. He’s been hospitalized six times, most recently in August for a serious skin infection that also attacked his lungs, the couple said. “We had an overwhelming number of bills that hit us all at once,” Earnest said.
The bills exhausted Ross’ income from Social Security and his pension from a Maine shipyard, where he worked as a design manager, the couple said. They said they’ve been working with Avista since at least February to try to resolve their past-due bills.
Ross and Earnest said they’re grateful for community assistance that knocked down their outstanding balance. A Sandpoint church paid $100 toward their bill; an Idaho Department of Health and Welfare employee secured a $500 private grant for them; and they qualified for $229 in federal energy assistance. Avista also waived $29 in past-due charges.
But a balance of $428 remains, and the couple said they can’t afford Avista’s proposed payment schedule. After their meter is read in April, the payment schedule would add $107 to their next four bills to resolve the past-due amount.
Earnest said the couple have had more than 50 contacts with Avista, trying to reach a resolution. Avista’s Simock agreed the number of contacts has been high.
“He’s not in a disconnection situation,” she said of Ross, who gave her permission to discuss his account. “Mr. Ross has done exactly what we ask customers to do. He called and talked to us about his situation, so we were able to work with him and avoid a shutoff situation.”
But Ross and Earnest said they appear to have reached a stalemate with Avista representatives over monthly payments on the past-due balance last week. They’re worried they could face a future shutoff notice.
“It’s so frustrating …We want to pay,” Ross said.
“We’re not alone,” he added. “There are others going through this situation.”
Simock said there’s no program offered that will cancel a customer’s energy bill. At some point, she said, clients must become current on their payments.