More people asking for help to pay utility bills

More people asking for help to pay utility bills

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The American Red Cross Greater Salt Lake Chapter used to get about 25 calls a day asking for help to pay utility bills. Now it's more like 80 calls a day.

"A lot of people can't pay their bills. They really need their electricity; they need to keep their food cold; they really need to be able to cook. We are happy to help them out," said Susan Thomas, the communications director for the Red Cross in Utah.

Thomas said they help low-income seniors and low-income disabled people pay utility bills by working with Rocky Mountain Power, Questar Gas and water companies. Those utilities have their own bill-payment assistance programs as well.

Thomas said there is enough money to meet the increased demand because there has been an increase in donations to programs like Lend A Hand and REACH.

"I'm thrilled the community supports this. They check the box and give a dollar or five dollars, and the donations keep coming in," she said.

Questar Gas has also seen more people stepping up to help with its bill-assistance programs.

"The great part of the story is that people are stepping up to help," said Questar spokesman Chad Jones.

Jones said the number of delinquent cases is 20 percent higher this year than last year. He said these are cases of extreme need because of the recession, and so Questar Gas is offering more differed payment agreements.

"We are trying to be more lenient right now because of the economy," he said.

He said they have found out that the national rate for utility uncollectibles is about 4 percent. Yet in Utah it's much lower at .043 - not even one half of one percent. That may be due to a better economy here and the help from fellow Utahns.

Rocky Mountain Power says even if it seems more people nationally are having their power bills shut off, it's not happening in Utah. In fact, over the past three years, disconnections are down. Spokesman Dave Eskelsen said from January to August of this year, disconnections are down by about a third from last year at the same time.

We have greatly increased our efforts to handle these problems early," said Eskelsen. "If customers get behind on their payments, just call and talk to us."

Catholic Community Services also helps with providing crisis funds for Utahns whose utilities are about to be shut off or have been already. They say they administered $180,000 in HEAT crisis funds this year compared to $130,000 last year. Questar Gas says $10.1 million was paid out this year in HEAT funds compared to $5.8 million last year.

Questar says the federal government budgeted more money for helping people with the HEAT program this year, partly because heating costs were higher when the budget was drawn up.


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Mary Richards


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