ACCESS has seen an increase in people applying for help, and utilities providers say more customers seem to be struggling to pay bills.

Recently, it seems like Cynthia Beadling needs about $100 extra a month.

As a single mother, she's responsible for all the bills, and wages from her job at a hotel front desk don't quite cover them. She began borrowing money from her bank to make payments, but she still started falling behind on her electricity bill.

Eventually, Beadling turned to ACCESS for help paying off the $415 she owed to the city of Ashland.

ACCESS has seen an increase in people applying for help, and utilities providers say more customers seem to be struggling to pay bills.

Countywide, ACCESS helped 27 percent more households from Oct. 1, 2008 to Feb. 28 (the winter heating period) than the same time span last year, according to energy programs supervisor Linda Grimm. Assistance in Ashland rose 8.2 percent, Grimm said, and the amount of funding used to help Ashland households increased by 32 percent.

"We've had a huge increase this year," she said. "We're seeing a lot of people we've never seen before."

Most of these newcomers have been relatively self-sufficient all their lives, but many have lost their jobs and don't know what to do, Grimm said.

In Beadling's case, her heating bill rose over the winter. Then, her friend lost her apartment after losing her job and moved in with Beadling for a few months, which further increased her bills.

As the weather gets warmer, her bills should decrease, Beadling said, and her boyfriend is moving in, so she'll soon be splitting costs. She also hopes to wrap up her online digital design courses so she can look for a job in graphic design.

"It's been a real struggle with me paying for everything," Beadling said. "Things have been able to plateau because (ACCESS) helped me."

There is always an uptick in people struggling to pay their electricity bills during the winter, but the numbers seem a little higher this year, said Pat Woods, customer service division manager with the City of Ashland's finance department.

"We've noticed an increase in people having difficulties," Woods said. "There's a lot more people saying 'I've lost my job' or 'I'm out of work.'"

This winter also saw a jump in the number of people applying for the Ashland Low Income Energy Assistance Program, Woods said. However, she's not sure if that's due to the recession or to increased publicity of the ALIEAP program, which gives low-income households a 50 percent discount (up to $300) on their electricity bill for three months during the winter.

"If somebody's having a rough spot or needs a little help," they can also apply for assistance through Ashland's Heat Program, Woods said. (To make a donation, enclose a separate check made out to the Heat Program with your utility payment or enroll in the Roundup Program to have your bill rounded up to the nearest dollar amount.)

If you're having trouble paying your bill, the best thing to do is call, Woods said.

"If they'll make arrangements and keep these arrangements, we'll work with them," she said. "We're not going to just turn you off, if you're going to try."

Avista has a similar policy, according to communications manager Debbie Simock.

"It's really important that they contact us as soon as they realize they're not going to be able to pay their bill," Simock said. Avista will try to arrange a payment system or direct customers to assistance programs available in their community, she said.

The company also offers comfort level billing — customers pay a set monthly rate based on their average natural gas use over the past year.

Avista, which serves parts of Oregon, Washington and Idaho, has seen more customers calling about their bills, Simock said, although they don't track these calls by region.

"But we do know that we are seeing an increase in customer calls from Oregon," she said. "It's probably due more, we think, to the economy."

Although winter temperatures can cause hardship keeping up with energy bills, customers of phone and Internet service provider Infostructure also seem to be delaying their payments, co-owner Scott Hansen said.

"We definitely have more past due customers and we've definitely had to make our past due policies more proactive," Hansen said.

As businesses close, Infostructure has lost some customers, Hansen said, and the Talent company is also seeing service cutbacks, such as businesses eliminating extra phone lines.

However, Infostructure has actually grown over the past year, he said, in part because they can help people consolidate phone and internet services.

"People are looking a lot more," he said. "People are much more interested in saving money than they were before."

For Tina Cowger, it's always been about living simply. She doesn't have a car payment or a credit card and makes sure her expenses don't outpace her wages.

"I'm a pretty much pay-as-you-go single mom," she said.

But in November she had to take time off from her job as a grocery store seafood manager due to complications from surgery.

Unable to work since, Cowger used up her savings and had to turn to ACCESS for help. The organization helped with her electricity bill and paid her February rent, which enabled her to save her disability checks so she could pay March rent.

"ACCESS actually was a lifesaver," she said. "Without them I would have been in some big trouble."

Cowger underwent surgery again on Tuesday and plans to return to work once she recovers.

Ironically, the economy hasn't affected her life much, she said.

"If I was working right now, the recession wouldn't be a factor for me," she said.

Kira Rubenthaler can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 225 or krubenthaler@dailytidings.com.