An unusually cold winter has caused some Maryland residents to fall behind on their utility bills, and prompted both regional utility companies and local governments to increase financial support for assistance programs.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s office recently announced the release of an additional $20 million in energy assistance for eligible low-income Maryland residents. In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced a program, The Power of Home, which will help homeless persons attempting to reestablish permanent housing pay back past-due utility bills with Baltimore Gas and Electric.

According to documents filed with the Maryland Public Service Commission, BGE had 270,304 customers with past-due amounts in January. The total amount owed by these customers was $104,382,528, an average of $386 per customer.

David Conn, energy assistance program director for BGE, said the company would allow customers to immediately enter into its budget billing program. The program calculates annual energy expenses and divides that amount into 12 approximately equal monthly payments, allowing customers to avoid the month-to-month cost fluctuations related to weather. In addition to budget billing, regional utilities including BGE and Washington Gas offer installment plans for eligible customers with past-due bills, as well as payment due date extensions.

D.C.’s water and sewer utility said it was temporarily easing collection and shut-off actions.

“What we normally do during the severe weather is we refrain from doing a lot of collection calls or shutting people off for non-payment, because in many cases someone needs water to operate their heating system,” said Lauren Preston, director of customer service for the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority.

The utility also offers the CAP program, which provides a discount of up to $34.88 per month on water bills thanks to funding built into the rates charged for water use. Participation in the program is based on the same income criteria as the District’s fuel assistance program; the application process for both programs is handled by the District’s Department of the Environment.

This winter’s unusually cold weather comes on the heels of a number of developments affecting low-income individuals.

“The average bill that clients bring to the Fuel Fund , without a doubt, higher than they were just a few years ago,” said Bill Freeman, director of development for the Fuel Fund of Maryland. “There are a number of factors in these high bills. Yes, the recession has affected many families as well as continued persistent, abject poverty resulting from lack of wage increases, increased unemployment, higher cost of energy delivery rates, decreases in supplemental assistance programs such as food stamps and unemployment compensation.”

Food stamp, or SNAP, benefits were reduced in November, while federal long-term unemployment benefits ceased in December. Families who supplemented their income with those benefits may now find it necessary to divert funds intended for utilities to cover food or rent.

Both Conn and Preston emphasized that any customers having difficulty paying their bills should get in touch with their utility provider sooner rather than later.”

“We would rather have customers call us because if they call us we can put holds on their account, make sure they don’t get notices, make sure they don’t get late fees,” Preston said. “It’s much better if they call us than ignore it.”


Roberto Alejandro

Special to the AFRO