January 24, 2014 — As of December 2013, Iowa ratepayers owed $34.9 million on their utility bills. That's the largest amount owed in any month since the state started keeping records in 1999. Even more troubling, the worst months for debt during heating seasons have historically been January, February, and March, thus, bill deficits may keep increasing.
According to a report by the Iowa Utilities Board, the $34.9 million figure is an increase of 21 percent from what was owed a year ago at the same time. Experts are blaming colder temperatures, higher energy costs, and a slow economy. December 2013 was the coldest start to an Iowa heating season in 13 years, and the cost of propane isn't helping.
Last week, Iowa's average propane cost was $1.99 per gallon. This was about a 44 percent increase from a year ago. By January 22, the average had increased to $2.60 per gallon. Harold Hommes with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship said the price is likely to continue going up. In some places, it was as high at $3.00 per gallon, and, by next week, it could be up to $4.00.
The propane issue is impacting many Midwestern states. There has been increased demand due to a late corn harvest, colder weather, and a major pipeline used by Minnesota suppliers is shut down for repairs.
The nearly 284,000 households that are behind on their bills don't face immediate service disconnection, because Iowa has a Winter Disconnection Moratorium from Nov. 1, 2013 through April 30, 2014. However, unpaid balances continue growing during that time.
State LIHEAP Director Jerry McKim expects that his program will see many more Iowans signing up in the coming weeks. When it comes to propane, qualifying households can receive $500 for the winter. McKim's office said people across the state are reporting their health is in danger, because they are having to choose between keeping warm and having enough to eat. Iowa's LIHEAP, which has already helped over 60,000 households, runs through April 30.
Sources: Media reports