Winter’s ‘triple whammy’ spurs calls for help with bills

02/26/2014 5:10 PM

02/26/2014 5:19 PM

When Marlene Harmon opened a recent electricity bill, she felt certain it was a mistake.

The $325 sum seemed unlikely — if not impossible — to the Fort Worth woman, who lives alone in a 1,200-square-foot house.

“I was completely shocked,” Harmon said. “My bill was almost double what I usually get this time of year. It was upsetting.”

Welcome to the winter of 2013-14 and its steady dose of bone-chilling temperatures, which have caused electricity bills to skyrocket in North Texas, thanks to increased consumption. Relief agencies and nonprofits report soaring demand for assistance, lengthy wait lists and frustrated customers.

United Way of Tarrant County, for example, saw a 62 percent jump in requests for assistance from last year to this year. Arlington Urban Ministries, which helps low-income Arlington families, temporarily suspended rent assistance to focus solely on utility bills.

“For low-income families and people living on fixed incomes, this has been devastating,” said Vicki Mize, director of United Way’s 211 community assistance program. “And it’s not over yet.”

On Wednesday, North Texas recorded its 50th day with freezing temperatures, the most in 30 years and easily surpassing the yearly average of 33, said Matt Bishop, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. This morning’s low is expected to be in the high-20s and more freezes are expected next week.

‘A triple whammy’

For residents like Harmon, that means more high bills are likely on the way. She turned to the Tarrant County Department of Human Services for help with her December and January bills.

Case managers at the county agency are fielding 300 to 400 calls for assistance a day, far more than in recent years, director Mary Lou Almendarez said. The department has paid more than $134,000 in utility bills from Feb. 1 to Feb. 21, compared to just $90,000 for the entire month of Feburary 2013.

“People are terrified their electricity is going to be turned off,” Almendarez said. “We are doing everything we can to help.”

Lauren Little, spokeswoman for TXU Energy, the largest electric provider in North Texas, said the frigid winter caused consumption to sharply rise. Calls and emails to customer service have increased, with many customers complaining their bills are double the usual amount for this time of year.

Some electricity users did not understand why their bills rose when their thermostat never budged, Little added.

“Even if you kept your thermostat at 72, your system has to run overtime to maintain that same 72 degrees,” Little said. “We had a winter that started a lot earlier, has lasted a lot longer and has been colder than our winters have historically been. It has a triple whammy.”

That is why TXU advises customers to take advantage of Average Monthly Billing, which spreads out payments over a 12-month period and eliminates the ups and downs, Little added.

‘Completely unprepared’

Among those affected by high electricity bills is Phyllis Carrier, a stay-at-home mother in Arlington. Shortly after her husband was laid off from his job of 13 years, the Carriers received a $314 electric bill for December followed by a January bill for about the same amount.

With no way to pay the bills, the family sought help from Community Action Partners, which serves Tarrant County residents and is managed by the city of Fort Worth’s Parks and Community Department

“CAP answered our prayers,” Carrier said. “I have no idea what we would have done without their help. We were completely unprepared for this winter.”

In March, Community Action Partners is hosting two community intakes for residents who cannot afford to pay their electric bills. The agency typically meets with people one-on-one but could not keep up with demand, said Sonia Singleton, the program’s assistant director.

“People who have never asked for help before are coming to us with their bills,” Singleton said. “I have never seen a winter like this before.”

People who live in old homes and apartments that lack insulation have been particularly hurt by the high bills, said Joan Church, executive director of Arlington Urban Ministries, which has seen numerous $1,000 bills. The nonprofit helps pay electric bills with a $144,000 grant from TXU.

“This has really hit people and families who live paycheck to paycheck with no savings,” Church said. “We expect high bills in the summer. People around here usually get a little reprieve from high electric bills in the winter.”

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