Power is shut off as bills pile up

More Americans are having their power shut off as the weak economy makes it harder to pay bills.

"We see record numbers of households becoming disconnected or in danger of disconnection," says Mark Bixby, energy director of Rockford, Ill. Five years ago, his office distributed federal funds annually to about 300 households that had their power cut off. Last year, it was 1,834 households, and the number is likely to go up this year, he says: "It's families that can't find work."

ComEd, which supplies electricity to 3.8 million customers in northern Illinois, says it has disconnected more this year than last but declined to provide specifics. The utility saw a 14% increase in bills 60 days late in the first half of this year compared with the same period last year, spokeswoman Kim Johnson says.

Regulations differ by state, but utilities generally may not cut power off during extremely cold, and in some cases extremely hot, weather.

Utilities say they try to help customers avoid disconnection with payment plans, referrals to social service agencies and grants to pay bills.

This fiscal year, the federal Administration for Children and Families distributed a record $5.1 billion to states to help low-income households pay energy costs. The federal stimulus package includes $1.5 billion to prevent homelessness, in part by helping people pay utility bills.

Nationwide:

• Piedmont Natural Gas, which has 1 million customers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, disconnected 9,039 North Carolina customers from November 2008 through February 2009, up 68% from the same period a year earlier. "The economy's having an impact," spokesman David Trusty says.

• Public Service Electric and Gas, which has 2.3 million customers in New Jersey, has seen a 20% increase so far this year in customers at least two months behind, says billing director Victor Viscomi.

This year, 30,000 more customers received financial assistance. Unemployment and foreclosures are growing, Viscomi says, and "bankruptcies are up approximately 30% among customers."

• At Arizona's Home Energy Assistance Fund, requests for help with utility bills are up 40% from last year, program manager Katie Morales says.

Chris Cox, 30, of Tucson, called after he got a cutoff notice. The father of four says he's two months behind and owes $400.

Cox, who works in ad sales, says his commissions have fallen by more than half in four months. "I have family and friends that would have normally been in a position to help, but they aren't able to now," he says. "I don't know what I'm going to do."

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