Unpaid utility bills soar as economy sags
By Judy Keen
CHICAGO - Hundreds of thousands of utility customers are at risk of disconnections as the sagging economy drives up the number of past-due home heating bills and the amounts owed, utility companies in cold-weather states say.
Xcel Energy says 17%-19% of its 1.1 million Minnesota customers and its 280,000 Wisconsin customers are in arrears. That's about the same as a year ago, but balances owed are up 10% in Minnesota and up 20% in Wisconsin, says Pat Boland, Xcel's credit policy manager.
Xcel disconnects 600-650 customers daily, he says. "Obviously the economy is playing a very big role in the disposable income that folks have," Boland says. Another factor: Cold weather added 7%-8% to this year's bills.The extent of the problem is becoming apparent now because most states in the Midwest and Northeast have moratoriums on disconnecting utilities in winter months. Those restrictions typically end March 31 or April 15.
Companies try to work out payment plans before curtailing service, and aid is available for some low-income customers.A record $40 million was owed by 226,670 delinquent customers of rate-regulated utilities statewide in March, says Jerry McKim of Iowa's Bureau of Energy Assistance. "What we have is a crisis that never goes away," and more federal and state assistance is needed, he says.