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AEP Helps Customers With Bills; Consumer's Council Says Lowering Rates Would Help

As air conditioning season approaches, some people are falling further and further behind on their utility bills. AEP Ohio is announcing a new program that will grant money to customers that are struggling to pay their bills - but some critics say that AEP's recent rate hikes are a big reason why those same customers are falling behind.

Starting with June's bills, AEP customers will be able to donate a dollar or more to help those struggling to pay their electric bill. This money will be matched by AEP and earmarked for those who are having trouble paying their bill.

The program is called Neighbor to Neighbor. It comes on the heels of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio's approval of a retroactive rate increase for AEP, that will increase rates by 13%. For the average customer, that amounts to about 13 dollars a month.

Terri Flora, a spokesperson for AEP, says up to 20,000 customers are struggling to pay their bill. "Well obviously people who can't pay their electric bill often don't come to us and then we don't know about them until they're disconnected. So it doesn't help them - it doesn't help us. They're not using our product and they're not able to use our product and therefore they are creating a discomfort for themselves," says Flora.

The program will help those who make up to 200% of the federal poverty income level. That means that a family of four making up to $44,000 a year would qualify for the money.

Some argue that AEP's recent rate hikes are contributing to the problem. Ohio Consumers Council Janine Migden-Ostrander says that while programs like Neighbor to Neighbor are hepful, they don't go far enough. "We think that what needs to be done first and foremost is keeping those rates down so that all customers can be helped. Because these dollars, while very valuable and very good, won't help all customers because there's a limited pot of money."

The Ohio Consumers Council has been working to lower the rate hikes since earlier this year. Migden-Ostrander says that the utilities commission is scheduled to rule tomorrow on a petition they filed to review the rate increases. She says that they have also filed a motion with the Ohio Supreme Court for a stay on the collection of the rate increases.