Historic food, gas prices take toll on N.C. people who struggle to pay bills

CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK- The Charlotte Observer

As food and gas prices hit historic highs, Duke Energy is shutting off more customers this year because they can’t pay their power bills.

Charlotte-based Duke, the largest utility in the Carolinas, disconnected 14 percent more N.C. customers during the first four months of this year compared with the same period last year, according to an Observer review of state records.

That’s an average of more than 500 shut-offs every workday out of its 1.8 million N.C. customers. April saw a 38 percent surge over the same month last year as stretched families are being forced to make hard choices about which household expenses to put off.

Local aid agencies are feeling the financial stress, in particular Charlotte’s Crisis Assistance Ministry, which helps families with emergency money and rent to avoid utility disconnections and evictions. The ministry is seeing record numbers this month.

“This is really about the cost of living and the price of everything going up,” said Doug Hartjes, development officer for the ministry. “This is a disaster.”

Duke said its customers are reporting financial stress from high gasoline and food prices and because of recent unemployment or loss of hours at work. The utility said it considers disconnection a last resort and that it follows N.C. regulatory rules, which allows shut-offs after missing three months of payments.

Duke said it tries to work with customers to set up payment plans that allow minimum payments on past due balances to catch up, said spokesman Andy Thompson.

Most disconnected customers, up to 85 percent, are reconnected by the next day — but not before the utility collects a $25 fee for turning the power on during business hours and $75 after-hours. Duke says the fee covers the cost of a technician traveling to the customer.

Thompson said unpaid bills, and the extra business expense of reconnecting customers, would increase bills for everyone if Duke didn’t have the threat of disconnection or charge a reconnection fee: “We don’t like to do it, but we are just like any other business.”

In contrast, Raleigh-based Progress Energy disconnected fewer customers during the first four months — less than 1 percent fewer — compared with the same period last year, according to state records. Progress said the drop is because of a repayment program it started last summer that works with customers to prioritize household spending. The utility started the program because too many customers reported paying nonessential bills first, such as the cable bill, before their power bill, said spokesman Drew Elliot.

Some were favoring cable over electricity because the cable company, largely unregulated, will disconnect service quicker. Electric utilities, on the other hand, are regulated by the state and are not allowed to disconnect without multiple warnings to customers over the three months.

Duke said it doesn’t have a similar program, Thompson said.

Power companies that operate in North Carolina are required to report monthly disconnections due to nonpayment to the N.C. Utilities Commission, which has a Public Staff and consumer services division meant to look after the rights of utility customers. The records show an average disconnection rate monthly this year of 10,875 customers.

Carl Goolsby, director of consumer services, said utilities have become hard-nosed about granting time extensions beyond what’s legally required. Some savvy customers, about to be shutoff, have complained to Goolsby’s office, he said.

“Sometimes we’ll try to find a compromise or a loophole to try and work something out for the consumer,” he said. “The utilities are usually agreeable. But with the way things are, their collection policies are a little bit tight, and they are trying not to give in.”

Duke’s $2.9 million in donations shared by 82 assistance agencies

Duke Energy said it donated $2.9 million to assist customers through the Share the Warmth, Cooling Assistance, and Fan Relief programs last winter and summer. The money goes to 82 special assistance agencies in the Carolinas, said spokesman Andy Thompson. Duke employees and the Duke Energy Foundation also gave $3.5 million to the United Way of the Carolinas, which helps fund Crisis Assistance Ministry and other nonprofit agencies, he said.

Keeping the lights on

Carla Howard waited outside Charlotte’s Crisis Assistance Ministry on Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to keep her lights on. Freshly laid off from a customer service job with a cable company, she needed emergency money to pay Duke $158 to avoid disconnection. She got it. “I was kind of living paycheck-to-paycheck. When you get laid off, that’s the end of your means.” The average residential bill in North Carolina is about $80. Families faced with months of unpaid power bills sometimes can’t catch up.

The ministry, which helps families with housing and utility emergencies, is a place of last resort where people line up before 8 a.m. hoping to be seen that day. The agency’s budget is about $10 million, with $7.4 million going directly to assistance. About 52 percent of the assistance covers utility bills. The rest is for emergency rental and mortgage payments to avoid eviction and foreclosure.

One morning this month, 200 people were lined up around the building and into the next parking lot. That was among the top five busiest days, ever, Hartjes said. The agency can see about 100 people a day, so half were turned away and some were given appointments for the next day, he said.

To donate or volunteer with the ministry go to www.crisisassistance.org

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