Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

TOP STORY >> Soaring energy costs squeeze area elderly

BY JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

IN SHORT: High utility bills have some seniors swaddled in blankets or choosing between paying for food or medicine.

Since his electric bill has risen about 45 percent this year, Bill Carr of Jacksonville says he’s afraid he and his wife Wanda will have to choose between prescription drugs and food. “It might be cheaper just to put me in a hole,” said Carr.

The Carrs are among thousands of area senior citizens living on Social Security who find their utility bills suddenly an even bigger burden than before. As they ate a Valentine’s Day meal at the Jacksonville Senior Citizen Center Tuesday, they confided that they get about $1,200 a month to cover all expenses.

But with a heating bill from First Electric of more than $300, it can be a struggle. “It just about doubled,” he said. “Before this there was not a lot of money left at the end of the month. Now there’s none.”

His wife said they were filling out a form to see if they could get some assistance with their bill.
“It’s very hard for us,” said Wanda Carr. Everything went up at the grocery store, too.

Bill and Delores Garrett, who were sitting with the Carrs, said they cut the thermostat back from 75 degrees to 69 or 70 degrees.

“We sit around the house wrapped up in blankets,” he said. “If this had been a harsh winter…” he said, his sentence trailing off.

“We replaced our windows,” said Delores Garrett. “That might have helped some.”

“I heard (the electric company) will help weatherize some homes,” she added.

Henry Foster and his wife Pearlie, dressed in her red Valentine’s Day finery, traveled to the McAlmont Senior Center at the McAlmont Church of Christ.

“My bill went up at least $100 or so,” said Foster who also has a pension from UPS to supplement his Social Security. He said he paid about $300 this time.

“I’ll just have to ride with the tide,” said Foster, who says he must keep the heat up for his wife, who is diabetic and has had a stroke.

“When everybody gets their pockets full, (prices) will come down,” said Foster.

Ceola Lee Crump, who lives at Brushy Island just outside Sher-wood, says levelized gas billing and help from the Department of Human Services on one electric bill eased the pain of the utility hikes for her.

Scripture says “Be thankful for all things,” said Crump.

The increased cost of energy is tied to the rising cost of oil, which Friday “fell” to $62.60 a barrel, disruptions in the supply of natural gas caused by three hurricanes and also, in Arkansas at least, diminished coal supplies at two major coal burning electric plants caused by disruptions in rail service, according to Neal Frizell, vice president of marketing and communications for the First Electric Cooperative.

First Electric serves, among others, most customers outside cities and big towns in Pulaski, Lonoke and White counties.

The increase in First Electric’s customer bills is attributable to two things, according to Frizell, the least of which is an increase in the basic service charge from $8 a year ago to $14.

The second, and by far more significant increase, is the energy-cost adjustment, based on the amount First Electric had to pay to fuel its plants and to buy electricity on the open market to supply its consumers, Frizell said.
Entergy and Centerpoint also have been passing increases in utility costs on to consumers, although in February, Centerpoint actually lowered costs, reflecting a decrease in the cost of natural gas.
Crisis assistance

Central Arkansas Development Council is accepting applications for crisis intervention assistance, a spokesman said. The eligible household must meet income, resource and residency guidelines and also demonstrate a home energy related emergency situation. 

This could be in the form of a disconnect notice within seven days, disconnected service or a household using propane that is below 10 percent and must pay cash on delivery. Households wishing to apply should provide proof of income for the prior month and a copy of the disconnect notice.

Winter assistance

CADC continues to accept winter assistance applications.  Any household that has not received winter assistance in 2006 is eligible to apply. Eligibility is based on income, resource and residency guidelines. Most households receiving food stamps will be eligible for this program. Households should provide proof of income for the prior month and a copy of their current bill.

Applications will be accepted in Pulaski County at the Jacksonville Workforce Center, No. 2 Crestview Plaza, in Jacksonville. The contact person is Shannon Jones. For an appointment call 982-3835.

Applications are also accepted at the North Little Rock Dept. of Human Services, 1900 East Washington Ave. in North Little Rock.

In Lonoke County, applicants may go to the CADC office at 117 S. E. Front St. in Lonoke. Mary Abshure is the contact person and can be reached from 8 a.m. until noon by calling 501-676-0019.