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Utility bills leave residents in hot water

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Temperatures were below zero for days at a time, and the furnace was running nonstop, driving up your heating bill.

Those bills rose to record highs, and now homeowners struggle to pay them. Utility companies are seeing more customers ask for extra time to pay.

Vectren has about 30 percent more customers than typical signed up for extended payment agreements, spokeswoman Chase Kelley said. That means customers get a three- or six-month extension to pay off the balance of their gas bill without getting disconnected as long as they pay each month.

About 140 customers have signed up for payment plans with Johnson County REMC, which is much higher than the 30 customers in a typical winter, spokesman Chet Aubin said.

Several days of bitterly cold temperatures meant people were using more electricity and more natural gas to heat their houses this winter. Residents used an average of 460 therms, or units of natural gas, this winter, compared with 370 the year before, Kelley said. Vectren also set an a record for the amount of gas used by customers, an increase of nearly 25 percent from the previous winter, she said.

Residents have started seeking help to pay those higher utility bills. Mount Pleasant Christian Church has had about 30 percent more residents asking for help paying utility bills than the average year, congregational care pastor Tony Gonzales said.

The church increased the amount of money available for utility assistance by about 30 percent, but Gonzales has had to turn people away because the church doesn’t have the money to help everyone.

Vectren set aside $250,000 to help people who didn’t qualify for federal assistance programs and used all of those funds within a three-week span, Kelley said. That money usually lasts most of the winter, she said.

If people get a bill they can’t pay, they should call the utility company first to talk about repayment options before they get disconnected, Duke Energy spokesman Lew Middleton said.

If the utility disconnects service, the homeowner then has to pay a reconnect fee and late fees on the overdue balance, which only make it harder to pay off the balance, Kelley said. The Vectren reconnect fee is $60, and customers might also have to pay a new deposit, which can be up to three times the average monthly bill, she said.

Johnson County REMC has had few customers facing being disconnected because most have been put on extended payment plans or connected with other local energy assistance programs, he said.

“Typically our disconnects are pretty minimal because we work with them to the point where we whittle it down or we’re working with them,” Aubin said.

Vectren doesn’t disconnect anyone who qualifies for state or federal energy assistance until mid-March. During the winter months, other customers won’t be disconnected during particularly cold stretches of weather, utilities said. For example, Duke Energy reviews the weather every day, and if the temperature is too cold, they won’t disconnect any customers, Middleton said.

A customer who doesn’t make a payment for a month will get a disconnect notice with the next bill. If that bill isn’t paid, workers will shut off service, which can take anywhere from two weeks to another month before power or gas is cut.

Not having penalties or reconnect fees makes it easier for a local agency such as a township trustee to help, White River

Township Trustee Mark Messick said. Township trustees can’t use their aid dollars to pay penalties or taxes, so they may only be able to pay $200 of a $400 bill, Messick said. If the resident can’t pay the rest, Messick can’t give them the money.

Gonzales said this winter has been one of the busiest he has had while working for churches. Some bills have been so high that he can’t help pay all of it, so he’ll send them to another group that might be able to help, he said.

“Depending on how much it is, and they’re tending to be higher now, we will help pay a portion of it but recommend they try to find some other resources,” Gonzales said.

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