Nonprofit-agency heads and state officials worry about a cold winter
November 12, 2008
Pat Wrice, executive director of Operation Fuel in Bloomfield, a nonprofit established in 1977 to help low-income Connecticut residents make it through the oil embargo, knows firsthand why so many people are worried about paying their energy bills this winter.\
When her grandson was living with her, Wrice could understand her $150 monthly electric bill.
"When you have a teenager running around leaving lights on and chargers for video games plugged in, you expect it," said Wrice.
But after her grandson moved out, Wrice's bill climbed right back to $130 to $150 per month after first dropping by about half. And that's with the house empty during the day. The situation with her natural gas bill is no better.
"These old bones can't stay in a cold house," said Wrice. "We aren't even in the cold winter yet and my bill was almost $200."
More than 30 years later, Operation Fuel is still helping low-income families pay their utility bills. And Wrice is not alone in worrying about just how bad it's going to get for Connecticut residents this winter faced with the worst economic downturn in perhaps 75 years and escalating energy costs. Will the programs in place to help those struggling with their bills be able to keep up?
"I do know that our customer representatives are very busy," said Mitch Gross, spokesman for Connecticut Light & Power, which serves 1.2 million customers across the state. "I've heard from the social service agencies and fuel banks that have been taking calls well in advance of programs getting underway."
United Way 2-1-1, a toll-free call center that helps people across the state access health and human service programs, has seen a 65 percent increase in calls related to heat and utility bills, according to Malia Sieve, director of the community results center for 2-1-1.
The number of utility-related calls rocketed to 36,000 for the nine-month period from January through September, compared to 22,000 for the same time period last year. Sieve said the increase in calls is clearly tied to the economic downturn.
"Folks are feeling it all over the place and not just in the low-income bracket," she said.
That's why it's particularly galling to many that United Illuminating, which serves about 300,000 customers in Bridgeport and New Haven, has chosen now as the time to ask for a $51.4 million rate increase in 2009, followed by a $29.9 million increase in 2010. The DPUC is expected to reach a decision on the request by the end of January.
"Their request is being met with major opposition among customers, as can be expected," said Taren O'Connor, consumer information representative for the state Office of Consumer Counsel.
UI did not return a call for comment.
Last year, said Wrice, the state spent $71 million to provide energy assistance to 90,000 households. This year, she said the state has doubled its commitment to more than $145 million.
"The one thing that really gives me cause for hope is that everyone recognizes we have a problem and wants to do something about it," said Wrice. "There's a general recognition that people in our state are hurting when it comes to energy."