Language barriers, illiteracy and general discouragement may be reasons people get behind in their utility bills and have services disconnected, according to a panel of utility experts.
But knowing about and using the "moratorium" and other heat-assistance programs should reduce winter-month disconnections for low-income people.The panel discussed winter utility disconnections during the Utah Issues 1988 conference. Utah Issues is an advocacy group that attempts to address the concerns of low-income people through lobbying efforts and dissemination of information.
The Public Service Commission and Legislature created regulations several years ago to end involuntary terminations of gas and electric services from Nov. 15 to March 15 for families who apply and meet program eligibility requirements. During the moratorium period, participants must work with utility personnel to clear up overdue accounts, because the utilities can disconnect service when the moratorium season ends. And any previous-year defaults have to be paid before participation.
"When people come to us for help (after they've gotten disconnection notices)," Rhea Peterson, of the State Division of Public Utilities, said, "We find that not even one-fourth have heard about the moratorium. Although they have to go to the utility companies before coming to us, they have not been told by those offices."
Spokesmen from Utah Power and Light and Mountain Fuel said their companies make every effort to discuss the moratorium program, and a pamphlet about it is available from UP&L in English and Spanish.
Two notices are given before disconnection, said Douglas Kirk, of the Utah Public Service Commission. In winter, the second notice is given by a personal visit or phone call, so there's no misunderstanding with those who can't or won't read the notice. UP&L and Mountain Fuel generally don't disconnect before the account is 90 days overdue.
In 1984-85, 1,556 households participated in the moratorium program. Last year, participation dropped by 89 percent, to 174 households. But Susan Larsen, who directs energy-assistance programs for the Department of Social Services, said that an unexpected $1.5 million available last year is gone, so the number should rise dramatically this year. "The $1.5 million, she said, "except a bit used for repairs, went almost exclusively to utility bills. It kept people out of trouble and out of the moratorium."
This year, the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program block grant (which becomes the Home Energy Assistance Target program in Utah) has only $50,000 to distribute to help low-income households pay for utilities.
Panelists suggested that brochures on heat-assistance programs be written at a third-grade level to help those who do not read well and that notices be sent to all customers during a once-a-year mailing. Credit representatives will also make a more consistent effort to inform clients of the moratorium program.