Saturday, January 2, 2010

Requests for help with electricity bills soar in TN

By Chris Echegaray • THE TENNESSEAN • January 2, 2010 For a second winter, Dyhanne Bryant needs help with her electric bill. The Nashville resident received a $428 bill in February, the same month she was laid off from a job she'd held for five years. A church paid half that bill. This year, her seasonal job at a department store ended after Christmas, and she's got another bill hanging over her head while she looks for her next job. "I think it will pick up soon," Bryant said. "I hope there's a real turnaround." Demand for utility assistance in Tennessee and the nation rose drastically this season. The unemployment rate for November was 10 percent nationally and 10.3 percent in Tennessee. Congress approved $5.1 billion in funding for this winter season for heating assistance, and even that may not be enough, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association in Washington. "The situation is grim for ordinary people," Wolfe said. "If this continues, we'll ask Congress for $2.5 billion more. Some people who never asked for help did this year with no intention to stay on these programs." In Tennessee, there were 68,250 households seeking winter heating assistance in 2008. This year, it was 112,368 households, Wolfe said. Nationally, 8.3 million households, a record number, received federal aid this year. Nashville Electric Service and the charity Big Brothers of Nashville provide assistance through Project Help, a program that allows customers to donate $1 through their bills. The donations are used to help the elderly and disabled. Big Brothers of Nashville helps families pay utilities, rent and gives other emergency assistance to the needy. It also delivers holiday food boxes. The program raises more than $130,000 in donations each year, and $145,000 already has been distributed this year, NES spokeswoman Deborah Gardner said. Gardner said NES didn't have a figure on how many of its 355,000 customers requested or received assistance. Last year was particularly trying on the utility and its customers because of unusually high electric bills representatives blamed on the Tennessee Valley Authority's 9.1 percent rate increase, the more than 20 percent fuel cost adjustment, extra days tacked on to bills and the cold weather. NES received 35,000 calls about January bills. The utility worked with customers, making payment arrangements and, in some cases, waiving late fees. Customers who never had late payments were calling and making arrangements. Bills eventually dipped when the TVA lowered its electric rates.

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