The recent record cold weather in Southern California may set another kind of record for consumers next month--in utility bills. What can you do if you've got a $200 gas or electric bill that you just can't pay all at once? There are, happily, some options.
And some monetary assistance for low income families.
All three utilities--Southern California Gas Co., Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power--report that they will work with their customers on a case by case basis to make special arrangements in paying gas or electric bills during this period. Representatives of each utility, though, stress that customers call company service representatives as soon as possible to work out a payment plan, not wait until they receive a turnoff notice.
"We want people to call us as soon as they're aware it (their bill) is an unmanageable situation," said the DWP's James Derry, director of consumer services. "We have a lot more latitude in setting up a payment schedule if they don't wait until the last minute or until the guy is at the door to shut off the electricity."
The majority of Southern California residences are heated by gas, but residents in those communities with all-electric homes are likely experiencing their own brand of skyrocketing heating costs.
As a gas company spokesman notes, the principle is simple: "higher gas usage translates into higher gas bills."
To get a handle on yours, check out the therm usage box on your gas bill this month to see how many units your household is consuming. If you use more than 62 therms of gas a month in the winter, the rate per unit after that increases from 37 cents a therm to 78 cents. That can add up pretty fast.
Electric bills also can creep up more quickly than you realize during unusually cold winter weather, especially if you're using one of those small, portable electric heaters that doesn't have a thermostat.
"We have this problem a lot with some of our elderly people," Derry said. "To save on heating bills for the whole house or apartment, they'll get one of those small portable heaters without a thermostat, and then it runs constantly 16 hours a day. They weren't aware, and then they come in with a much bigger bill. It happens every winter when it gets cold. Once we tell them what's caused the bill to be higher, we rarely have a repeater.
"We advise them to look for the energy rating on the heater and get one with a thermostat so they can set it at a given level and it won't run constantly," he added.
One way Southern California Edison has of helping with large bills, especially for its elderly or disabled customers, is a program called "third party notification."
"A customer can ask us to notify a third party if their bill becomes past due," explained Suzanne Hughes, supervisor of consumer affairs for Edison. "We send a copy to the designated person who can remind them to pay it or assist with the payment. A pretty large percentage of our customers are using the program."
All three utilities also offer an option called a "level pay billing plan" to customers. What this does is average out your bills over a 12-month period so you won't have a $150 bill one month and a $35 one the next. You can join one of these plans anytime in the first few months of the year, providing you have been a customer for one year. That's so the company has criteria by which to set an average figure for your bill.
If your bills seem way too high--even considering the cold weather--you should call your utility and request a home energy examination of your house to find out what you can do about conserving energy and lowering your bill. That service is free from each of the utilities.
And if you are a low-income senior citizen, handicapped or disabled person or a family at poverty level income, you may not know you actually can get some monetary help from each utility's assistance fund for low income customers.
All are administrated by United Way through 127 service agencies in Southern California, among them the Salvation Army, Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, Chinatown Service Center and the Retired Seniors Volunteer Program.
To qualify, you must appear in person at one of the designated agency offices, have a past due bill or turnoff notice and be able to show figures stating your total household income, either monthly or annually.
Basically, you cannot receive assistance if you have income over certain limits set by the federal government. For example, if you're single, you can't have income of more than $625 a month or $7,501 a year; for a family of four, the limit is $1,262 a month or $15,145 in a year.
If you are receiving State Supplemental Income (SSI), you automatically qualify for assistance and do not need to have a past due bill. And handicapped or disabled persons who are unable to go to one of the agencies' offices may authorize a friend or relative to appear for them.