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Residents on fixed incomes struggle as electric bills skyrocket

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Posted: Sunday, July 31, 2011 12:00 pm

By Rebecca Rose

Killeen Daily Herald

In June, Sonia Willoughby sat at her table to pay her bills, like she does at the end of every month. She recorded each amount in her bankbook, carefully writing each payment out.

Willoughby, 63, has to be precise each time, making sure every penny is strictly accounted for. She and her husband, Timothy, live entirely off his monthly $1,366 Social Security check.

The couple rents a small apartment in Temple for $571 a month. They have a car loan for $184. Their car insurance is $80. They pay $150 a month for a loan they are trying to pay off.

That night in June, Willoughby opened her monthly electric bill, a payment she usually budgets for about $100.

It was a staggering $222.

"I almost had a heart attack," she said.

The couple's power bills had hovered around $100 per month throughout the year. But in May and June, those payments jumped to nearly $200. One of the first bills of the summer was $178, putting an immediate strain on the couple's already limited financial resources.

Willoughby explained how even an increase of less than $100 impacts the couple's finances.

"That $78 dollars, maybe it doesn't seem like a lot," Willoughby said. "But I have emphysema. I have a $20 co-pay. My prescriptions are $5. If I have to go to the doctor three times in a month, and refill a prescription more than once, there goes that $78."

Judy Morales, director of Bell County Human Services, said, "For people who live on a fixed income or Social Security, it's very hard to budget their money when certain bills become so extreme."

The county agency oversees the HELP Centers in Killeen and Temple. In 2010, HELP Centers provided financial aid and emergency cash grants to more than 3,100 households. Approximately 1,050 recipients lived in Killeen.

Morales said the agency typically gets about 1,200 contacts a month from people looking for assistance this time of the year. Many of them are looking for relief from high utility bills, or what she called the "sticker shock" of skyrocketing electric bills.

"What we're seeing is more senior citizens on fixed income," she said. "They have to make tough choices between food, medicine, electricity or rent."

Available financial help

The HELP Centers partner with utility companies and other local businesses to provide assistance for people, such as the Willoughbys.

But the agency doesn't just provide financial relief in times of crisis.

"We try to make people aware of what they can do to reduce their energy bill," Morales explained.

In addition to the HELP Center, there are other nonprofits and government agencies that provide financial assistance in Central Texas.

The Comprehensive Energy Assistance Program provides heating and cooling energy assistance throughout Texas. Similar to the programs the HELP Centers offer, CEAP also focuses on providing conservation education along with utility bill assistance.

The Salvation Army's Family Emergency Services offers financial assistance, which could include help with utility bills.

In Temple, St. Vincent De Paul offers assistance to Bell County residents who have exhausted financial options at other agencies.

"If the agency can't take care of the entire bill, they get referred to us," said Ivett Mours, assistant manager of St. Vincent De Paul. "We can help with the last $50."

Mours said the summer was the busiest time of the year, with people looking for assistance with high bills. Most of their clients are seniors living on fixed incomes.

Electric companies fund many of the programs and services that provide bill-payment assistance.

"It's required for all retail electric providers to ask for a charitable donation on their bills," said Amanda Ray, spokesperson for TXU Energy. "It's up to their discretion what they use that for."

Customer donations to TXU benefit the company's Energy Aid program. For every $1 people donate, TXU donates $5. All the donated money goes directly to the community where the donation originated, Ray said. For example, customer donations from Bell County go to Bell County Human Services, which fund the Killeen and Temple HELP Centers.

Reliant, another large electric company in the area, has a similar program. Reliant Care works with local agencies that provide money for utility bill assistance. Customers who call for assistance are referred to those local services, said Steven Morisseau, spokesperson for Reliant.

Disconnection woes

Terry Hadley, spokesperson for the Texas Public Utility Commission, said people living on a fixed income get an automatic discount on bills from May through September.

"There is a low-income discount that provides a 10 percent reduction," he said. "The discount is funded through a fee on all electric bills, averaging out to approximately a dollar a month."

Hadley said disconnections are prohibited for two days during and after the National Weather Service issues a heat advisory for a county.

But Hadley advised cash-strapped residents shouldn't wait for disconnection notices to appear in the mail to address the problem. "When you get a high bill, the first thing to do is contact your retail provider, to work out payment plan that would be easier on your budget."

Morisseau with Reliant, agreed.

"They're overwhelmed," he said of customers faced with unexpectedly high bills.

Reliant also offers an option to switch to retroactive billing, an average of the past year of service. "That average becomes the amount they need to pay," Morisseau said. "That can drop the bill as much as a third."

Challenges continue

After their last bill, Willoughby called Reliant, which is the couple's electric provider. Immediately, the company placed the couple on a discount program, offering them a more manageable payment option.

But long after the sweltering summer heat fades, the Willoughbys will continue to face tough financial choices that come with living on a fixed income.

Willoughby is one of the hundreds of people who stand in line at St. Vincent De Paul's food bank every Thursday, part of the supplemental assistance the couple receives in order to help them get by month to month.

"You get to know people pretty good, about their problems and their bills," Willoughby said of the long wait in line.

"We're all in the same boat," she said. "There are no rich people in that line. You don't see expensive cars. You don't see fancy clothes. You just see poor people."

Contact Rebecca Rose at rebeccar@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7548. Follow her on Twitter at KDHheights.

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