Sunday, January 28, 2001

Thousands looking for help

By Karen Samples
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Greater Cincinnatians are overwhelming public offices with requests for cash help to pay home heating bills.

        “It's the worst everybody in our office has seen,” says Herbert Walker, a manager with the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency.

        His office is getting 125 applications a day, compared to 50 a day last year, for cash subsidies through the federal Home Energy Assistance Program. Some people have been turned away due to lack of space in the waiting room.

        Last Tuesday, Mr. Walker had to intervene when one applicant became distraught over her energy bill of $1,188. Her meter readings had been estimated until last month, when she was hit with the whopping charge.

        “She had a fit in the office,” Mr. Walker says. “She was just heartbroken that the most we could do was $175, and then she was like, "Where can I get the rest of this money?' And there's no place else to turn.”

        Across Ohio this winter, applications are up 14 percent compared to last year for the federal program, known as HEAP, says Vicky Mroczek of the Ohio Department of Development. More than 300,000 households are expected to receive help with their heat bills by winter's end.

        In Kentucky, the need is so great that HEAP, thanks to an influx of additional funds, has been extended through February instead of ending this month.

        Already, 165,000 Kentucky households have received cash assistance with their heating bills, compared to 140,000 for the entire season last year.

        Besides seeking subsidies, thousands of Tristate residents have called Cinergy in December and January to make special payment arrangements.

        From September to December, Cinergy saw a 5 percent increase in the number of customers placed on "budget billing," spokesman Dave Woodburn says. In Ohio, that means 94,952 households — 15 percent of the total — are now having their payments spread evenly over 12 months. In Kentucky, 23,494 customers, or 19 percent of the total, have opted for budget billing.

        The utility is receiving 11,000 customer calls a day compared to the usual 7,000, Mr. Woodburn says. Most of the new callers are either wondering whether their bills are correct or requesting easier payment plans.

        Calling isn't enough for some customers. Martha Isaacs, 68, went to the utility's office in person to question her December bill of $416, which was $275 higher than normal. Cinergy promised to reread the meter at her five-room house in Kennedy Heights, Ms. Isaacs says.

        “I expected it to go up to $180, maybe $225, but not $400. That's a lot of money,” she says.

        To save costs, people are rethinking their homes and heating habits.

        Every winter, Cinergy arranges free energy audits of 4,500 homes around Cincinnati and 500 in Northern Kentucky.

        This December and January, so many people requested inspections that Cinergy didn't have to recruit customers with the usual mailings, says George Sundrup, manager of conservation programs for Cinergy.

        Specialists with the Home Energy House Call program are booked two weeks in advance, and unlike last winter, few homeowners are canceling their appointments.

        “When people open that $300 bill, they say, "Oh my gosh, this is crazy, I need to do something,” Mr. Sundrup says.


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