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Southerners Stunned by January Heat Bills

January 28 – Record cold temperatures in South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida and West Virginia are showing up in customers' heating bills, with monthly charges up an average of 50 percent and requests for payment assistance on the rise.

"My income has gone down because of the economy, too, so it's just been kind of hard," said Janet Pearce, a 49-year-old waitress from West Columbia.

Pearce was apprehensive this week when she asked the South Carolina Electric and Gas billing office for more time to pay her bill, which was double her typical $80. The company allowed her to spread the payments over the next few months.

SCE&G, South Carolina's largest private utility, has seen a 50 percent increase in people seeking help with bills in recent weeks, spokesman Eric Boomhower said. And the number of calls related to bills is up 20 percent from last year.

"Now we're seeing more and more folks who maybe have never faced that type of a situation before," Boomhower said. "And they don't even know where to start. ... We want them to know that we've got folks here ready to talk to them."

Utilities offer a variety of payment assistance programs, including one that averages a year's worth of bills and lets a customer pay a set monthly amount, to avoid spikes from weather extremes.

"Customers tell us they haven't done anything differently," said Paige Sheehan, spokeswoman for Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy. "So they don't understand why their bill is so much higher."

Utility spokesmen said the sustained cold forced customers' heaters to work overtime just to maintain their usual household temperature. On average, Sheehan said, Duke's all-electric customers in the Carolinas saw a 50 percent increase in their most recent bills from the previous month.

The two-week nationwide cold snap was especially hard on Southerners, ill-equipped to deal with the frigid weather.

Some parts of Alabama reported 10 straight days of subfreezing temperatures and an average of 24.8 degrees — the coldest start to a year on record there. In South Florida, usually around 68 degrees in January, the National Weather Service reported a record low of 36 degrees at the Miami airport, beating an 82-year-old record of 37 degrees.

Even before the cold snap, more people were seeking help.

"Hard winter or not, we're in the middle in an economic climate that has created hardships on many families," said John Ballengee, chairman of the United Way of Central West Virginia. He said assistance programs have been "a godsend at this point, just to help people through a difficult time."

In December, 6,375 people received more than $2.28 million in help with energy bills through South Carolina's Office of Economic Opportunity. That was up from 4,792 people who got more than $1.48 million in December 2008, according to Bertie McKie, manager of South Carolina's community services and energy assistance programs.

The money from the federal government and utilities is distributed by community organizations. Funding for the program in South Carolina increased to $47 million last year from an average of $13 million in previous years.

"The allocation jumped so much last year because of weather conditions and because of the number of people that had lost jobs and all the other things going on with the economy," McKie said.

In West Virginia, applications for the Utility Assistance Program are up 58 percent from last year, director Danielle Snidow said.

"The people who are coming in are not the usuals," Snidow said. "In some cases it's working families with two incomes and ones who lost their job who really need help."

Nearly $415,000 has been awarded so far this year to 1,765 West Virginia families. Last year, the program distributed $325,415 to 1,152 families.

Source: Associated Press