Rising energy rates combined with recently delivered shut-off notices drove hundreds of people to a social services agency in Hartford Saturday where they met with utility representatives in hopes of getting assistance with past-due bills.
"I'm looking for a payment plan that will fit my income," said Shirley Williams, a single mother of three from Hartford and part-time food service worker at Weaver High School. "Basically, I'm glad for the second chance."
Williams was one those in line beginning at about 7 a.m. Saturday outside the offices of the Community Renewal Team on Windsor Street, where they could get advice from Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut, as well as from organizations that can assist with food stamp distribution and the collection of child support payments.
But most were interested in meeting with representatives of Connecticut Light & Power and Connecticut Natural Gas about bills that piled up over the winter. Home heating oil distributors did not participate in the program.
Jim Pastrana of the renewal team, which provides a range of support to low-income residents of Hartford and Middlesex counties, said about 75 customers an hour were speaking with utility representatives Saturday. At the end of the day, requests from about 675 households had been taken by the utility companies, compared with about 600 a year ago.
Williams said that during the recently completed heating season she benefited from an energy assistance program, but it wasn't enough to keep her from falling behind; she declined to say how far. "It's high. Too high," she said. " ... It's hard when you're getting paid for working about 20 hours a week and you're getting paid twice a month."
Organizers said many of the delinquent ratepayers waiting for interviews Saturday had previously been deemed "hardship cases" because of income and family size and were beneficiaries, from November to May, of a "no freeze moratorium," a state law that prevents utility cut-offs during peak heating months. But with the moratorium ending this week, many customers said they are afraid of falling behind in their rent in order to keep the gas or electricity on.
"Our clients are always on the edge," said Claudia Magnan of Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut Inc., one of the organizations that created what has become known as Utility Day.
Magnan said her organization is a front line legal assistance program for low-income state residents and that it helped organize Utility Day in an effort to work out repayment plans early and avoid being deluged by calls next week from prospective clients whose utilities had just been shut off.
"We wanted to avoid inundation when the moratorium ended," Magnan said. "The utility companies have agreed to break out their best programs today."
Representatives of the utilities said they were offering a variety of payment options, based on factors such as customer income and family size.
Tom Murphy of CL&P said some qualifying customers might be forgiven past-due amounts on electric bills if they agree — and adhere — to a monthly payment plan based in their average monthly electric bill. Others, he said, could be offered extended plans to pay delinquent amounts.
"We absolutely love doing this," Murphy said. "It's a great feeling to know we can help out customers."
CNG representative Lissette Andino said the gas company was offering the same terms.
"We look at the accounts and see how we can help put customers on payment arrangements."
Many of those looking to work out terms with the utilities said they had no interest in making their financial difficulties public.
But Paula McFadden of New Britain seemed, in equal measure, to be frustrated by rising utility rates and grateful for an opportunity to work toward a repayment plan.
"This winter was hard," said McFadden, a single renter who lost her job in November as a bank customer service representative. "I just couldn't keep up."
McFadden said family members helped initially with her utility payments, but eventually that was not enough. She said she called CL&P yesterday after receiving a shut-off notice and was advised to attend the Utility Day program and attempt to work out a plan to settle the $3,000 she says she owes.
"This year, it seems like they are being compassionate toward us," she said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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