As temperatures begin to plummet, Toledo officials want to be sure residents who might having trouble paying their heating bills know they can get help this winter through the Home Energy Assistance Program and other sources.
"Folks are having to make choices about paying for food, paying heat bills, or paying other bills," said Toledo Councilman Steven Steel. "Basically, our message today is that no one should go without heat this winter."
Greg Hopkins, chief operation officer of the Economic Opportunity Planning Association, said the agency is ready to process applications for assistance programs such as HEAP and the Percentage of Income Payment Plan - an extended payment arrangement that requires regulated gas and electric companies to accept payments based on the household income.
"The need is much higher than in other years," Mr. Hopkins said. "We have served 11,600 clients between November, 2008, and Sept. 30, 2009."
Ohio's income eligibility requirement to qualify for the federally funded HEAP has been adjusted to enable more people to be helped with winter heating bills, the Ohio Department of Development said this month.
Households are eligible if total income is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline, an increase from 175 percent last year. Eligibility is determined by a sliding scale based on household size. For a one-person household, the maximum income is $21,660. For a household of two, it increases to $29,140.
For information or to apply for assistance, people may call EOPA or visit energyhelp.ohio.gov.
Customers who get behind on their bills can have service restored if they pay $175 of the amount owed, but there is a higher reconnection fee than last year. Utilities in Ohio may now charge a maximum of $36, plus at least a portion of the outstanding bill.
In Toledo last year, Columbia Gas of Ohio turned off service to 12,670 customers. Through the end September, there have been 13,065 shut-offs, said Chris Kozak, Columbia Gas spokesman.
The gas utility, one of the largest in the state, Wednesday said it plans to charge 56 cents per 100 cubic feet of gas in November, less than half what it charged a year ago and the lowest for the month since it charged 48 cents in 2001. Its rate fluctuates each month, and is 49 cents per 100 cubic feet this month.
The company estimates the average bill next month will be $61.
The rate is subject to review by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
Mr. Kozak said even with the reduction, the company expects many people to fall behind in their bills.
"Interrupting service is Columbia Gas' last resort," he said. "It is not something we want to do."
Money is available for customers who don't qualify for traditional assistance programs, Mr. Kozak said. The utility offers bill payment assistance to customers with incomes between 175 percent and 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines.
The emergency assistance fund is also administered by local agencies that distribute HEAP, such as EOPA.
- Ignazio Messina