Thursday, October 9, 2008

D.C. residents are applying for help to pay their utility bills in record numbers, and there may be worse to come: Heating costs are forecast to rise up to 23 percent this winter.

D.C. resident Michelle Williams, a single mother of two, said Wednesday that she asked for help when her utility bills — including air conditioning — increased to more than $200 a month.

“They just got higher and higher, and it’s only October so it’s not going to get any better. I just couldn’t afford it,” said Miss Williams, 39, who was standing in line with dozens of other residents at the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center in Northwest to receive city assistance with her energy bill.

Because an unprecedented number of residents are asking for help in tough economic times, D.C. officials have extended at least one deadline for nearly 1,000 people who were turned away from an enrollment event.

The D.C. Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program helped a record number — more than 30,000 — households during fiscal 2008. Of those, 8,000 had at least one child younger than 5. The program offers one-time grants to help low-income residents pay overdue utility bills and suggest ways to use less energy.

“People are now more than ever in need of assistance, whether it comes to utility bills or other financial hurdles,” said Alan Heymann, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Environment (DDOE), which administers the program.

About 1,000 D.C. residents were turned away from an annual Joint Utility Discount Day, hosted Sept. 30 by the city and utility companies to offer discounts on bills and to enroll residents in the city’s energy-assistance program. Organizers were overwhelmed when more than 7,000 residents arrived.

As a result, the city will give those turned away until Oct. 10 to sign up for the program. About 1,200 people have visited the office in search of help in the past nine days.

Lery Johnson, 35, of Southeast found the doors closed when he went to the Sept. 30 event with hopes of getting a discount on the $1,300 bill he owes the utility companies for the past year. He returned Wednesday to the Reeves Center.

“These past few months have been brutal, and when I got there, they told me they couldn’t help and that I had to come back out here,” he said.

Joyce Cristewell, 61, also was turned away on Sept. 30.

“They weren’t too helpful when I came,” she said. “They told me they had been overwhelmed and that I’d have to come back here next week.”

Miss Cristewell had outstanding bills totaling $1,050 on heat and electricity. She said she suffered a stroke last year and cannot work.

The Energy Department announced earlier this week that utility bills were estimated to increase 23 percent and that fuel-oil users would spend an average $450 more than last year.

Natural gas users — about half of the country’s households — will pay about $155 more on average than last winter.

“We expect it to be a more expensive winter across the board,” said Howard Gruenspecht, acting chief of the federal Energy Information Administration.

In addition, an Associated Press survey found that utility shut-offs because of unpaid bills are up to 22 percent higher than last year.

“We’ve seen rising shut-offs around the country. More and more people are struggling to pay their energy bills,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, whose members include the director of the D.C. program.

The energy-assistance program provides one-time grants from $250 to $1,000 to residents who have received disconnection notices for electricity or gas service because of unpaid bills. The amount is determined according to household size, total household income, heating source and type of dwelling.

It is one of the most expansive programs of its kind in the country, with 42 percent of those eligible enrolled, the largest percentage in the country, Mr. Heymann said.

The program starts in mid-November and ends in June when the funding expires.

Because of unprecedented demand this year, the program was extended until Aug. 8. An infusion of $1.3 million from the city’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development extended the program until Sept. 12.

Applicants are required to attend weekly classes that teach them how to cut energy use and lower monthly utility bills. City officials said the most effective way of lowering energy costs — even in tough economic times — is to conserve.

For more information on how to receive energy assistance, call the DDOE’s Energy Office at 202/673-6700.

• Jeff Canning contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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