Residents feel pinch of rising bills;

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Southwest Gas, California Edison offering discounts based on inability to pay

The Daily Press – Victorville (California)

VICTORVILLE, CA — Nathaniel O. Collins spent 41 years working at the CMEX cement plant. He is now retired and lives on a fixed income with his wife, Elizabeth, in Victorville.

Rising energy prices — a 14-percent gas and possibly a 16-percent hike in the price of electricity this year over last — are forcing them to make choices.

“As long as you have a home you need certain items,” Nathaniel Collins said. “We know we have to cut back in some areas. Whether it be in food, medicine or
entertainment, we know there needs to be an adjustment to meet the high cost.”

The California Public Utility Commission recently approved a 5.8 percent rate increase request by Southern California Edison and could bump electric rates up another 10 percent or more after Jan. 26, Gil Alexander, spokesman for Southern
California Edison, said. The PUC has also approved a 14 percent rate increase for customers of the Southwest Gas Corp. Bills reflecting those recent increases will be hitting mailboxes this month and next.

To help offset the rising energy bills Collins has applied for assistance to Southwest Gas and California Edison. The energy providers offer income-qualified residents up to 20 percent off utility bills.

For the last two years, 62-year-old Paula Carrillo of Adelanto has enjoyed that 20-percent discount, but with the latest round of increases she, too, is having to make some tough choices.

“Sometimes I need medicine and I have to wait,” Carrillo said. “Sometimes this (paying her gas and electric bills) is most important because I don’t want to be shut off.”

Local charitable organizations that assist residents with paying bills are seeing increasing requests for assistance.

“I still don’t know how people survive with the prices; how do they afford to feed their families?” asks Marta Melendez, regional director of Catholic Charities in Apple Valley. “I am overwhelmed when I see people trying to have the basics covered.”

Since opening in September, 1999, the agency has spent $261,941 helping 650 families with rent. In just the last six months the agency has assisted 82 of those 650 families with $40,176.

“That is truly incredible,” Melendez said.

The Salvation Army is another charitable organization taking note of the hardship incurred by rising energy prices. “People are finding their utility bills are rising above what they were last year,” said Suzi Lacey, director of public relations for the Sierra del Mar chapter of the Salvation Army. “They get to the end of the month and they just don’t have enough money to cover all their expenses.”

Southwest Gas reports that an average homeowner’s January 2005 bill, based on 95 therms, was $124.97 and this January the average home gas bill will jumped
14 percent to $142.44. Edison customers who had an average January 2005 bill of
$75.31 are seeing them increase this January to an average of $79.71. Those
bills could increase by another 10 percent in the next month.

Both Southwest Gas and Edison representatives said they are state regulated agencies and have no control over increasing costs of fuel.

Representatives of the electric company said rates are increasing due to increased costs of natural gas, which powers more than half of the state’s power plants. Rates are also rising to pay for long-term, high-priced power contracts entered into by the state during the energy crises. And thirdly, more than $9 billion is needed for infrastructure repairs.

Douglas Heller, executive director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica said greed is at the root of the rate increases.

“Ever since the energy crises of 2000 and 2001 Californians have seen the prices of basic utilities — gas and electricity — skyrocket and most of it has either gone to line the pockets of the big energy industry or was stolen away, was wasted away, as part of the energy industry’s deregulation scheme,” he said. “So when people are facing the hard economic choices of the day, when it is particularly stinging to keep our lights on, we are paying extra to cover corporate stupidity and greed.”
LeRoy Standish may be reached at 951-6277 or [email protected]

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