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Advocates Looking to Put "Freeze" on Shut-off Moratorium Loopholes

September 29, 2008

Albuquerque - Energy advocates are fighting a loophole in a state law that could leave struggling families without heat this winter. The latest revisions to the state's winter shut-off rules would require families who are behind in their utility bills to work out a payment plan before the shut-off moratorium starts in November. But, if they default anytime during the winter, their utility can flip off the switch or shut off the flow of gas.

Utilities say they're within their rights under the statute, but Kira Jones, with Community Action New Mexico, says that position goes against the intent of the law.

"We believe, once you're in, once you're found to be eligible for protection, you're in. Regardless of whether you default."

Many unfamiliar with the problem of timely bill-paying often don't understand those who face that challenge, says Jones.

"They may think these people are deadbeats or junkies. And really, the majority of people want to pay their bills and do pay their bills."

Advocates for energy assistance say the worsening economy and increasing energy prices have forced many families to make tough choices between paying utility bills or buying food. Community Action New Mexico is urging the state legislature will consider a permanent funding stream for energy assistance in its next session this winter.

Jones says her group will protest the latest draft of the rules, which might not be finalized by the time the moratorium starts this year. In the meantime, she recommends that anyone having trouble paying utility bills contact their local state Human Services Department office to get help in working out a payment plan with their utility. The shut-off moratorium runs from November 15 through March 15.

More information is available at www.hsd.state.nm.us/.

Eric Mack/Chris Thomas, Public News Service - NM