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Social services seeing more requests for help from people sweating big utility bills

PUC rules today on plan to keep needy's power on
ANITA HASSAN
Houston Chronicle

Pearline Branch leaned her head back Wednesday afternoon and attempted to fan away the sweltering heat as she sat on her front porch in the Third Ward. But a slight breeze from the trees did nothing to cool the 71-year-old woman, who said being inside her home during the day would be far more grim.

Like many of her neighbors and several other residents in the Houston area, Branch can't afford to pay high electricity bills during the summer and tries to reduce costs by keeping off lights and avoiding the use of electrical appliances during the day.

"I'm scared to turn it (electricity) on because I don't want the bills going up," said Branch, whose electricity bill was almost $300 in June.

Although residents throughout the metro area have seen spikes in their power bills, the situation is particularly hard for senior citizens, the disabled and people in low-income neighborhoods such as the Third Ward. Harris County Social Services Department reported an increase in the number of people asking for assistance with their utility bills and are seeing about 120 a day. The agency expects to spend $1.7 million by the end of September helping those who are unable to pay their electricity bills, a 35 percent increase from last year.

Electricity bills are 25 percent to 45 percent higher than the same time last year, despite a dip in temperatures during June and July, which fell below historical averages.

"What we are really seeing is the increase in what utility bills are costing," said Ellen Seaton, HCSSD special assistance services manager. "It's insane."

Help may come today from the Texas Public Utility Commission, when it decides whether to adopt a chill-now, pay-later plan that would call for a moratorium on disconnections across the state and allow seniors, disabled and low-income citizens up to six months to pay their summer bills.

"We are also seeking to avoid heat-related illness and, of course, death is the worst-case scenario," said Tim Morstad, utility specialist with the Texas Office of Public Utility Counsel.

Morstad added that the Public Utility Commission has acted in favor of similar petitions filed in 1998 and 2000 that were much broader.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, sent the PUC a letter with 25 legislators' signatures supporting the plan.

"I would hate to see people cutting back on AC or being disconnected and literally dying," he said. "I don't thing we need to wait till we get to that point. I think we need to act now."

Turner said he fears this year's rate hike is just the beginning of what could be many more years of increases residents will have to absorb.

"I think people need to realize that this is the last year that electricity will be regulated," Turner said. "Come January 2007, utility companies will be able to charge whatever the market will bear."

Several residents interviewed by the Houston Chronicle this week said most of their cost-cutting measures have been futile. The saving grace for many has been payment plans.

"Pay on it, that's all you can do. Pay in bits and portions," said Lisa Johnson, a single mother of five who waited at HCSSD for utility assistance Wednesday morning.

Higher electricity bills are causing many people to seek assistance with their utility bills this summer, according to HCSSD. Along with county funds and a federal grant from the emergency food and shelter program, HCSSD also receives money from the Community Assistance by Reliant Energy program to help people avoid disconnection.

"If someone gets in and qualifies, we can give them significant help," Seaton said.

Reliant Energy has opened nine cooling centers in low-income neighborhoods such as the Third Ward. The centers are used as air-conditioned refuges where people can escape Houston's summer heat.

The higher costs of keeping cool, however, are being felt everywhere as social services agencies across the metro area report more calls for assistance.

Montgomery County Emergency Assistance, for instance, received $500,000 in emergency funding to help low-income residents pay skyrocketing utility bills, said executive director Joanne Callahan.

''The last thing we want to have happen in Montgomery County is to have someone die of heat exhaustion because of fear that they won't be able to pay the bill and then will get all of their utilities disconnected," Callahan said.

And Stephanie Cone, executive director of United Way of Brazoria County, said social services agencies can help residents keep air conditioning and fans running. Last month, United Way helped distribute a few cooling units donated by a local company, she said.

In Galveston, where temperatures often run several degrees lower than in central Houston, there were no plans to open cooling centers for residents, said city spokeswoman Alicia Foyt. But the county operates a senior-citizens center on the island that sponsors daily activities and sometimes urges older residents to take advantage of the air-conditioned facility during heat waves, center director Peggy Davis said.

Chronicle reporters Mark Babineck, Renée C. Lee, Kevin Moran, Richard Stewart and Allan Turner contributed to this report.

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