This Winter, Some Choose Between Warmth, Food, Health
by Catherine Komp
In Onondaga County where winter can bring nearly 200 inches of snow and weeks of below-freezing temperatures, residents are projected to pay an average increase of about $467 to heat their homes this season. Because of the increased demand for heating assistance, the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA) projects that New York will stop accepting applications for heat assistance by the end of January.
Louise Poindexter, a Syracuse resident in her sixties, knows the perils of
coming up short on the utility bill. Her provider - Niagara Mohawk, which is
now National Grid - once shut off her electricity and heat in retaliation for
a $120 shortfall.
Poindexter, who lives on a fixed income of about $1,100 per month, said she took measures early this year to keep bills down: She did not light her gas heater until November, and at night she woke to run water in the kitchen and bathroom to keep the pipes from freezing. Despite these measures, Poindexter's November statement was almost $400.
"I usually get caught up [on utility payments] by summer, and this time it took me all the way until the end of September to catch up," she said. "Generally, during July, August, and September, I save up, and that helps me get through the first couple months [of winter]. I don't know what's going to happen this year; I didn't even get a chance to save."
Poindexter and members of Syracuse United Neighbors, a community advocacy organization, recently protested the high costs of heat in front of the local offices of US Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. They demanded increased federal, state, and local funds for heating assistance, a "neighborhood fuel fund" to help families pay their bills, and a task force to reduce the number of utility shut-offs.
National Grid did not return calls from TNS (The NewStandard) for comment on their winter utility disconnection policies.
Last fall, NEADA released the results of a survey of about 1,100 low-income heating-assistance recipients. The group found that to pay for energy costs, 32 percent of surveyed families sacrificed medical care, 24 percent failed to make a rent or mortgage payment, and 20 percent went without food for at least a day.
A Right to Warmth
While customers' bills are rising, so are the salaries of top executives. Between 1997 and 2004, compensation for CEOs at Wisconsin utility companies increased between 73 and 450 percent, according to the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group, a consumer advocacy organization. During this period, rates paid by customers increased approximately 30 percent.<
Pat Gowen, an organizer with Milwaukee's Welfare Warriors, expressed frustration about the lack of competition among utility providers, and the monopoly some companies have over gas and electric services. She said she does not believe private companies consider the poor when developing their policies, and instead "gouge the people for ever-larger profits."
Gowen's distrust of WE Energies, the only company providing gas and electric services to her area, is reinforced by reports of price gouging in other states. In Illinois, a judge recently ruled that People's Gas overcharged residents $118 million in 2000-2001. Price gouging by utility companies in California related to the Enron scandal during 2000-2001 led to about $2.1 billion in refunds to customers after years of litigation.
Though many people will struggle with the high cost of utilities for years to come, 9 to 5 volunteer Doris Gillisie believes a more equitable system is possible. She wants to see a sliding scale of utility fees for low-income residents. "No one should have to sacrifice medicine in order to be warm," she said. "They're warm in their big, comfortable houses. How come the poor person or less fortunate can't be comfortable in their little houses?"
This is an excerpt from longer article originally published by The NewStandard, an independent, on-line news source. You can find the original article and more at their website: http://newstandardnews.net