Paying for Power a Struggle for Some

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Consumers on tight budgets face crises. Requests for aid flood agencies, but many of those eligible for discount programs are not signing up.

Los Angeles Times

In San Francisco, a retired music teacher with polio came within 48 hours of losing gas to heat his apartment and electricity to charge the motorized scooter that takes him to the doctor and to church.

In Santa Cruz County, a former insurance company administrator dropped insurance for her mobile home because she could find no other way to pay her mounting utility bills.

In Los Angeles, a former foster care provider whose gas bills are running about $100 a month can’t make ends meet on her $289 Social Security check.

Up and down the state, problems encountered by utility ratepayers on fixed incomes and tight budgets are bad and getting worse, according to the state’s anti-poverty agency.

Tens of thousands of Californians are flocking to special programs that offer discounts on energy bills, cash assistance and home weatherproofing that reduces utility costs.

Social service agencies say they are swamped with applications for assistance from low- and moderate-income people, even before the largest electricity rate increase in state history starts showing up on bills this month. The clients, they say, range from single-parent and working-class families to seniors who have sold their estate jewelry and even condominiums because utility bills pushed them beyond the limits of fixed incomes.

Several agencies contacted by The Times say they already have provided more assistance this year than during all of last year. Some have been forced to hire extra staff to handle the crush. Others temporarily ran out of funds.

Many people are turned away because there is not enough money to go around or they do not qualify under the income guidelines or other criteria for assistance.

“We have to make tough choices about serving eligible seniors or disabled or people with children,” said Sigmund Vays, president of Community Enhancement Services, which serves Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. The agency is able to assist about one of five applicants.

The state Public Utilities Commission approved a rate increase of 3 cents per kilowatt hour on March 27. Officials say that translates to an increase of $4 to $85 a month for residential customers. Natural gas rates have soared throughout the state as well.

Rising energy costs hit people living at the margins particularly hard because utilities eat up such a high proportion of their income. Some are saddled with bills of $1,000 or more; others are doing without medicine and scrimping on food to keep their power on.

“We got numerous e-mails from seniors, the disabled and others on fixed income because their utility bills have increased two, three or four times,” said Toni Curtis, chief deputy of the state Department of Community Services and Development. “They can’t pay them.”

Elizabeth Berryhill, 81, longtime artistic director of a Bay Area theater group, was getting by on frugality, Social Security and a little money from renting space in her house in San Anselmo.

Then her utility bill tripled last winter to about $300. A community organization now provides up to $230 a month in assistance.

With the new electricity rate increases, Berryhill said, “I am hugely concerned. . . . I don’t know how long the program will go on, or how long they will be able to help me.”

‘More Lip Service Than a Real Safety Net’

State regulators recently directed utilities to redouble efforts to enroll low-income customers in programs infused with tens of millions from state coffers.

While encouraged by the increased funding, consumer advocates and community service agencies are worried that the programs will not reach the millions who qualify, let alone those who might need help even though they don’t qualify.

“The promises of protection become more lip service than a real safety net,” said Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica.

California officials estimate that one-fifth of the state’s households, or 2.7 million customers, are eligible for two major utility-run programs.

But only 60% of them are participating in the California Alternate Rates for Energy program, which provides low-income customers a discount that the PUC increased from 15% to 20% Thursday and exempts them from this year’s rate hikes.

Only a small portion of those in the program are also enrolled in the Low-Income Energy Efficiency program, which provides home energy improvements such as insulation and new appliances.

Utilities administer the programs and receive $200 million to fund them through small surcharges on customer bills. Recent legislation provides an additional $120 million.

The federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, created during the energy crisis two decades ago, pays customers’ bills when they face cutoff of their utilities for nonpayment. Even with another $120 million from California, state officials say, the program has enough money for less than 10% of the 2.1 million households that could qualify.

“Everyone realizes there is not enough to go around,” said Alex Sotomayor, director of the Maravilla Foundation in East Los Angeles, which has distributed 40% more money this year than last.

San Diego Gas & Electric refused to release figures on service disconnections this year. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. sent about 1 million 48-hour notices from February through April, and disconnected about 53,000 customers. From January through April, Southern California Edison cut off about 133,000 customers. The numbers are roughly the same as a year ago.

The 22,000 shut-offs at Southern California Gas Co. in the first four months of 2001 represent a 40% increase from last year, but are below its three-year average for the period.

More Outreach, Funding Cutting Disconnections

Utilities say their efforts have helped prevent shut-offs from rising higher. Southern California Gas, for example, notes that it offered nearly 1 million extensions to customers through April, up 82%.

Social service agencies say increased outreach and funding this year also are helping hold down disconnections for now, but with rate boosts, they are concerned about this summer and beyond. “Our concern at this point is how we will help prevent disconnections on an enormous scale and the loss that will ensue in the coming winter,” wrote Dennis Osmer of the Community Action Board in Santa Cruz County in a May 21 report for the state Senate Office of Research.

To the north, retired organist, singer and teacher John von Spreckelsen, 65, lives in a spartan apartment near San Francisco City College. He survived polio and a heart attack. He manages to get across town to Grace Cathedral for Sunday services and occasionally to the symphony by using his electric scooter, public transportation and transit for the disabled.

The energy crisis, however, threw him. His electricity and gas bill from PG&E went from about $40 to $140 and ate a huge chunk of his $712-a-month disability payment. When he couldn’t pay his bills, von Spreckelsen said, he was notified his power would be shut off in two days.

“I travel with an electric scooter, and I have to keep it plugged in every night,” he said. “Because I’m sedentary, I keep my thermostat at 75. They ask us to turn it down to 68, but I freeze to death.”

A community service agency enrolled von Spreckelsen in the utility discount program and paid $840 of his bills. “It was astronomical,” he said. “It means I even have change for the next bill.”

Melissa Porter, a 32-year-old mother of two, says she faces the cutoff of utilities to her rented house in El Cajon unless she pays a $600 bill by June 19. That, she said, will not be easy.

Her husband died of a heart attack on March 20. She is in a leg cast with an injury, and can work only one of her two jobs for a private firm that assists the elderly.

“I am cutting everything back,” Porter said. “I had to let my car payments and insurance go. I managed to pay rent for May just last week and to buy food for my kids. It [isn’t] much food either. . . . We’re eating lots of macaroni and cheese.” Porter said she has been trying for two weeks to get help with her utility bill, without success.

A number of customers reached by The Times through service providers did not want their relatives and neighbors to know about their plight, so they asked that their names not be used.

One Los Angeles woman is a former foster care provider and part-time student who receives $289 in Social Security and cannot afford her $100 monthly gas bills. “I can never catch up,” she said. “I now owe $372.” Her children pay the mortgage on the Koreatown home she has owned since 1965 and help her with food.

A former insurance administrator lives on a fixed income of $711 a month, but $495 of that goes to pay her utilities and mobile home space in Soquel, south of Santa Cruz.

“I had to drop my homeowners insurance because I could not pay for it and the utility bill,” she said. Like a number of her neighbors, she said, she also has cut back on food.

Thanks to government programs, she gets discounted electricity and received a free high-efficiency refrigerator.

“Lots of people are too proud to admit they need help,” she said. “That’s the way I was too.”

Marin County is synonymous with the good life, but the energy-price explosion is damaging those least able to roll with it.

“It’s terrible,” said Layne Schneider of Community Action Marin, which has helped five times more people with their utility bills this year than last and ran out of money a week ago.

After 35 years as a travel agent, Christina Thomas of Sausalito did not expect to find herself so frail at 63. She has osteoporosis and emphysema. She needs to be on oxygen 24 hours a day. Thomas tried to conserve but fell behind on her utility bills.

“I seldom put the TV on,” she said, “but I can’t cut down on my oxygen.”

She received $300 in one-time assistance, but a 15-day shut-off notice arrived recently, saying she owed $900.

Thomas plans to make the minimum payment of $134. “That would keep me going until the next bill,” she said. “I worked all my life and paid my taxes, and it has come to this.”

Aid to Low-Income Customers Through programs, California provides discounted electricity rates, assistance with bills and weatherization services to low-income customers of investor-owned utilities:


Funding: Surcharge on utility bills, augmented by state money.

Benefit: Discounts on gas and electricity bills, which the state Public Utilities Commission increased from 15% to 20% Thursday.

Eligibility: Households with incomes below 175% of poverty level, or about $30,000 for a family of four.



Funding: Surcharge on utility bills, augmented by state funds.

Benefit: Weatherization services to low-income households.

Eligibility: Households with incomes below 175% of poverty level, or 200% of poverty level for elderly and disabled.



Funding: $62.7 million in federal funds, plus $120 million in state funds this year.

Benefit: Payment assistance, with a sliding scale by income levels.

Eligibility: For federal funds, households with incomes below 60% of state median income. For state funds, households with incomes below 250% of poverty level.


Pacific Gas & Electric Co.:

Relief for Energy Assistance through Community Help (REACH) is administered through the Salvation Army and provides help with bills. Last year, the average was $180 for about 18,000 households.

Southern California Edison:

The Energy Assistance Fund, administered by the United Way, provided one-time payments averaging $86 to 5,185 households last year.

Southern California Gas:

The Gas Assistance Fund provides a one-time credit of up to $150 on the bills of qualified low-income customers.

San Diego Gas & Electric:

The Neighbor to Neighbor program provides half the monthly bill, up to $200, during winter months.

Sources: State Senate Office of Research, Department of Community Services and Development, Public Utilities Commission.

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