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Published: 4/12/2011

In April, utilities insist late bills be paid

Cold-weather shutoff restrictions expire

BLADE STAFF

April marks more than just the regular return of warmer weather; it also marks the month when local utility companies look to their delinquent customers to make good on their past-due bills or face having those utilities shut off.

Paul Livernois, a spokesman for Michigan Gas Utilities, which provides natural gas to large swaths of Monroe and Lenawee counties, said April 1 is the end of the company's annual Winter Protection Plan, which protects eligible seniors and low-income customers from having their service shut off between Nov. 1 and March 31.

This month the company warned delinquent payers that those who had not made efforts to catch up on their bill would face disconnection of service.

He said low-income customers should contact local agencies, such as the United Way's 211 Help Hotline, for assistance that might postpone disconnection before those organizations' funds are depleted.

"Customers will find we offer options for payment; but the larger the balance, the larger those payments need to be," Michigan Gas President Chuck Cloninger said in a written statement. "If there are extenuating circumstances that can be documented, we need to know about them."

Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., parent company of Toledo Edison, doesn't do utility shutoffs over the winter months whenever temperatures are forecast to be below 20 degrees within the next 24 hours, spokesman Mark Durbin said. The warmer weather then means the end to any weather-related restrictions on shutoffs and an end to the company's program that allows delinquent customers to make a one-time $175 payment to keep their service going.

Chris Kozak, a spokesman for Columbia Gas of Ohio, said the natural gas utility doesn't have a winter shutoff moratorium, but does observe a practice during cold-weather months of providing delinquent customers with a 10-day shutoff notice. As of Friday, that practice ends.

This year, there are about 40,000 more homes across Ohio that have seriously delinquent accounts with Columbia Gas than there were a year ago, but the number of customers whose service was terminated this year is down about 33 percent overall, Mr. Kozak said.

"We continue to see lower gas prices, and we're seeing a lot of outreach efforts, especially for those seeking help for the first time," Mr. Kozak said. He said there are still utility assistance programs with funds available, and customers who believe they may have trouble paying their bill should contact Columbia Gas as quickly as possible to make payment arrangements and keep gas flowing.

"By the time the guy shows up at the house with a pipe wrench, it's too late," Mr. Kozak said.

-- Larry P. Vellequette



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