Increasing numbers of people struggle to pay utility bills

October 15, 2010

An increasing number of people, including those in households that never sought help before, are struggling to pay their utility bills, another hard reminder of a tough economy.

Colorado Springs Utilities says more people are seeking financial help and more people with higher incomes are asking for additional time to pay their bills.

“We are seeing requests for payment arrangements, as well as emergency COPE assistance, spread to income brackets that previously did not seek out this type of assistance,” Utilities spokesman Steve Berry said Friday.

“So, the economy is certainly impacting everyone in some form or fashion,” he said.

The city-owned utility has seen a 30 percent increase in the number of households receiving assistance from Citizens Option to Provide Energy — Project COPE.

The program, funded through grants and donations from local residents and businesses, is administered by the nonprofit foundation of the utility company to help people in need.

“We have a lot of great customers here who do contribute to COPE, and that’s what makes that program survive,” Berry said. “If it wasn’t for our customers who contribute quite faithfully, we’d be in a lot of trouble. That says something about our community.”

Utilities also is getting more calls from people who can’t pay their bills on time. The number of households requesting payment extensions jumped 20 percent this year.

“It’s pretty much across the demographics of our customer base,” Berry said. “We are seeing that definitely spread out across the community.”

Pikes Peak United Way’s 2-1-1 referral hotline also is receiving more calls from people who can’t afford to keep the lights on.

“It’s usually people who have gotten a disconnect notice and who either don’t have the financial means to pay the amount right at the time or they don’t have the financial means at all to pay it based on loss of job or whatever the case may be,” said Michelle, the hotline’s team coordinator. Michelle asked that her last name not be used in accordance with United Way policies.

Between July and September, the No. 1 request from callers was for help paying utility bills, Michelle said.

“With the economy the way it is, more people losing their jobs, or there’s the working poor as well, sometimes it’s a (question of), ‘Do I pay the utility bill or do I put food on the table to feed my children?’ Nobody should have to choose that,” she said.

Berry, the Utilities spokesman, said the utility company provides assistance options.

In addition to COPE, payment arrangements and a program called Budget Billing, Utilities also offers Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP) assistance.

The program, which provided nearly $5.9 million in assistance to nearly 12,300 households during the 2009/2010 heating season, is funded by the federal government.

Utilities experienced a 5.8 percent increase in LEAP assistance this year compared to last year, Berry said. The average LEAP benefit was $491.77, he said.

But bad news may be on the horizon.

Berry said he heard the federal program may not be funded at the same level in 2011.


Need help?

Call Colorado Springs Utilities at 448-4800 or go here

Or call Pikes Peak United Way’s free hotline at 2-1-1 or 955-0742 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Call the writer at 476-1623

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