If you've fallen behind on your energy bill, instead of ignoring the problem and getting a shut-off notice, you may have other options, power company officials say.
You should first call the utility company and let it know you are having trouble making the payment and see about averaging your payments over 12 months so they don't spike in winter, says Pacific Power spokesman Tom Gauntt in Portland. However, if you want to reduce or eliminate your balance, you can make an appointment with ACCESS, which has funds from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Oregon Energy Assistance Fund, then show it your energy bill and proof of income.
If you are found eligible, they will commit funds to the power company, which, in turn, will credit your account, says Kate Rodriguez, home heating specialist at ACCESS.
In Ashland, the energy assistance program is run by the city.
"You don't need to be in immediate danger of shutoff. You can even come with a zero balance," says Rodriguez, noting that ACCESS helped 6,800 local families last year.
About 60 percent of the funds come from the federal LIHEAP program, and the rest from money the state collects with its 3 percent "public-purpose charge" on utility bills. Both are funneled here through ACCESS.
The state collected $5 million from that charge statewide in the past fiscal year and disbursed it to low-income ratepayers via community action agencies around the state, says Gauntt.
In addition to ACCESS, these and other funds are available locally through the Salvation Army, where you can walk in without an appointment.
If you gross less than $1,844 per month for one person or $3,547 for a family of four, ACCESS can give you an appointment (or visit you if you are disabled) and evaluate you for fuel fund assistance for Pacific Power, Avista or the city of Ashland, says Rodriguez. It can also compensate you for propane, heating oil or firewood, if you bring receipts.
Despite the demand, ACCESS is sufficiently funded for this year, says Rodriguez. It credited almost $2 million to local power bills last year.
To get help with a Pacific Power bill, says Gauntt, call 888-221-7070 and be candid about the situation, including when and how much you can pay, so they can explore your meter-reading history and discuss a payment plan. They can arrange weatherization by referring clients to the Conservation and Energy Efficiency Program, which is also funded from the public-purpose charge.
If the bill is still too large, Pacific Power will refer you to ACCESS, which will determine income eligibility over the phone and set an appointment for you to come in.
The Jackson County Fuel Committee has volunteer advocates to help clients through this process, says Marisa DeCristoforo, low-income program manager for Pacific Power, but "it can complicate things because of privacy issues, so it's faster to use ACCESS and have them pledge the funds to us, and we can stop the shutoff right away."
Oregon HEAT, a private, nonprofit agency, receives donations entirely from the public — no government money — and also funnels it here through ACCESS.
"There's a horrific need this year," says HEAT Executive Director Roger Rees. "Need is up and giving is down because of the economy. What's donated from Jackson County goes back to that county, and this past year it was $51,000. About one in five households qualify for it."
The average delinquent amount is about $300, and it seems to be human nature to procrastinate about past-due bills, says Rees, noting that 46 percent of applicants had just been given a 24-hour shutoff notice.
"We need to make it clear that utility companies do not want to shut off power," Rees says. "It's a lot of paperwork. They have to send people out there three times, and it costs them a lot of money, which gets passed to other ratepayers. They try to be as cooperative as they can and have to follow the rules of the Public Utilities Commission."
Ashland, being a city-owned utility, doesn't get public-purpose funds from the state but runs its own Low Income Energy Assistance Program, which is based on income. It's operated through the Senior Center and has $85,000 to help 400 customers. You can apply through the end of December at 541-488-5342.
You can apply any time of the year to Ashland's Utility Customer Service desk to work out a monthly payment plan or connect with ACCESS.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.