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Consumer Agency Reports More Gas And Electric Disconnects

The cold weather has settled in on Central Ohio. Residents are turning up their thermostats. And calls for assistance to Columbia Gas are up by one-third. The state consumers counsel reports a significant increase in the number of customers losing their gas or electric service through disconnection. And people are turning out in large numbers to seek help from area agencies. WOSU's Christina Morgan reports on what could be a long, cold winter for many Ohioans.

Nearly 25% of Ohio's utility customers live in poverty. Even before the cold weather arrived in central Ohio, food bank operators were seeing near record demand for assistance, gasoline prices teettered around $3 per gallon, and employment challenges had taken a toll on lower income families.

"It's quite something to run an average household in today's world and economy." Says Reynoldsburg resident Ira Perry.

Perry is a single mother of two children. She says the younger child was born with birth defects which required Perry to stay home. Two years later, she remains unemployed and in need of assistance.

"We live in an apartment where there is no winterization, weatherization, windows are loose and rattly and covered with plastic, so my heating bill every month average about 90-100 dollars, steep amount when you don't have anything coming in." Says Perry.

Perry received assistance through the federally-funded Percentage of Income Payment Plan or PIPP, located at The Breathing Association, one of several facilitators for home heating assistance in central Ohio. This day, though, Perry is waiting with her niece and about twenty others at the Columbus Franklin County Community Action Agency's St. Stephens Community Center location. This scene is repeated at dozens of locations around the area as increasing numbers of people are forced to make hard choices.

"More and more customers are having to make a decision between medicine, food, and utility service. And its just not the kind of decision that Americans should have to make." Says Ohio Consumers' Counsel Janine Migden-Ostrander. She notes that even though utilities are necessities, the number of disconnections statewide has risen by more than 9 percent over last year.

"It's a significant increase, yes, and that's reason to be concerned." She says.

In Franklin County, one in four utility customers lives at or below the federal poverty line. The majority of residents heat with natural gas. Natural gas prices are currently high, even before increases in demand. And Columbia Gas of Ohio spokesman Ken Stammen says the number of calls to Columbia Gas seeking assistance is up by one-third. "Being disconnected isn't something we want to do to folks, really, if you look at the variety of options we have available it isn't something that should happen." Says Stammen.

In addition to directing customers in need to assistance programs, Stammen says Columbia Gas takes part in "Warm Choice," a program which provides home repairs and water heater or furnace replacements to help make homes more energy efficient.

"Ironically, many of the folks who have income challenges who are stretched economically also live in homes that are not very energy efficient." Stammen says the Warm Choice program has saved lives by fixing carbon monoxide or other potentially dangerous problems found in people's homes.

Unfortunately, Warm Choice will not help Ira Perry and her children in their drafty apartment in Reynoldsburg. Only people who own their own homes are eligible for the assistance program. But Perry is happy to receive the help she is eligible for

"I understand there is funding to set aside or pay some of the bill so we're not in danger of having the heat shut off." Says Perry.

Christina Morgan WOSU News For information on home heating programs in Ohio: Ohio Consumers' Counsel 1-877-PICKOCC www.pickocc.org