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PA Law Puts The Chill On The Poor: 20% More Utility Disconnects

January 14, 2009

Harrisburg, PA - Just as Mother Nature is preparing to throw Pennsylvania into the deep freeze, more people are without heat because they can't pay their bills. Advocates for the poor say a Pennsylvania law enacted four years ago is a major factor in more utility disconnections this winter.

The state Public Utility Commission reports electric and gas companies terminated more than 296,000 households last year, a 20 percent increase from the prior year. Harry Geller of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project said the report doesn't hold much good news for those who have no heat this winter.

"The numbers of customers who are terminated each year has increased, and the numbers of customers who go through the winter or at least are identified through this winter survey have increased."

Geller said a utility law known as Chapter 14 has made things worse over the past four years and is a major factor in the increased number of disconnects. He says the pro-utility law makes it more difficult for the Public Utility Commission to mandate when utilities reconnect those who are terminated.

Supporters of Chapter 14 say it seeks to eliminate the opportunities for customers capable of paying to avoid paying their utility bills, and to provide utilities with the means to reduce their uncollected accounts. Geller indicated there will be more hardship for ratepayers when caps on the price of electricity go away.

"Those rate caps are set to expire within the next year or two, and when those rate caps come off the situation is going to get even graver."

The PUC cold weather survey released three weeks ago reported more than 17,000 households as entering the heating season with no service or unsafe temporary heating units. The figures don't include municipal utilities, rural electric cooperatives and deliverable fuels. Another 18,000 homes that were terminated have been vacated.

Glen Gardner, Public News Service - PA