Utilities cut off more customers who are behind on their bills (USA Today)

By Paul Davidson

As skyrocketing food and gasoline prices strain budgets, utilities are disconnecting many more customers who fall behind on their bills, and even moderate-income households are getting zapped.

Electricity and natural gas shutoffs are up at least 15% in several states compared with last year. Totals for some utilities have more than doubled.

"We're seeing a record number of shutoffs," says Mark Wolfe, head of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which represents programs that subsidize energy bills.

An NEADA survey this month shows 8% of four-member households earning $33,500 to $55,500 have had their power turned off for non-payment. "It's hitting people in the suburbs with two cars and two kids," Wolfe says.

The disconnects are rising as warm-weather power bills increase, some state moratoriums on winter shutoffs expire, and rates are climbing in many states.

Service is typically restored within days after customers work out payment plans, but even brief outages can pose a health hazard on sweltering days. Still, customers typically pay the mortgage and car payment before utility charges, as they can usually buy more time from the power or gas company.

In Pennsylvania, PPL Electric Utilities disconnected 7,054 customers through April this year, up 168% over the same 2007 period. PPL won't shut off customers until they owe at least $250 and will first try to work out a payment plan, says spokesman Ryan Hill.

Duke Energy in North Carolina is averaging about 11,000 shutoffs a month, 14% above last year. That's an annualized rate equal to nearly 10% of its 1.4 million residential customers, though Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan says some households may be shut off more than once. She says unpaid bills are ultimately borne by all other customers through higher rates.

Disconnects are up 27% for Peoples Gas in Chicago, 14% for Southern California Edison and 56% for Detroit Edison, according to utilities or regulators. In Michigan, where home foreclosures are soaring and the unemployment rate is the USA's highest, more than one in five Detroit Edison customers were behind in their electric bills in May.

Some help is available. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is providing $2.5 billion in fiscal 2008, but funds are depleted. Congress may kick in $1 billion more. States add $2 billion but strapped ones such as Rhode Island are scrapping aid.

Ginger Hall, 34, got a shutoff notice from her Sacramento power company in March when she racked up about $500 in overdue bills after a broken furnace forced her to use electric heaters. She paid the debt with help from LIHEAP. Hall, who is married with four children, says their $45,000 household income is normally sufficient, but not with food and gas prices soaring. "You can't have your utilities getting shut off, but when they double each month, it catches you off guard. You have to juggle and make it work," she says.