Utility companies urge to plan ahead before heating moratorium ends

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Utility companies say now is the time to act if you're behind on your bills.

Xcel Energy spokesperson Liz Wolf Green said on April 15, the winter heating moratorium ends. The law prohibits disconnecting Wisconsin customers during the coldest part of the year between Nov. 1 and April 15.

She said this means customers who are significantly behind on their bills could face the potential for disconnection.

"When it expires, customers who are significantly behind on their bills face the possibility of disconnection so we really encourage our customers that have fallen behind on their bills to contact us so we can setup payment arrangements," said Wolf Green.

She said while the number of customers who fell behind on payments were consistent, at 30,000 of the 250,000 or so customers, their bills are about 15 percent higher. That's likely because of a harsh winter.

"This was the coldest winter we had in three decades plus the fact that natural gas prices increased by 25 percent this year," said Wolf Green.

She said Xcel Energy will work with customers to come up with a payment plan that will help households pay their bills.

But if you just can't foot the bill, she said to consider the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Western Dairyland is helping low income households sign up in Eau Claire and Trempealeau Counties.

"We provide additional help throughout the season from October until the next winter season to help households that have already qualified for energy assistance but they found themselves needing even more help," said crisis service coordinator at Western Dairyland Kristy Sellhausen.

Sellhausen said the phone lines have been busy and already 4,000 households have applied in Eau Claire County since October.

"Typically this would be our busiest time but we've been busy from January through now because we first started out with the propane crisis with the spike in propane prices that caused a lot of people to call our program for additional help because they couldn't afford to get propane for heating their homes and now we're getting calls from the people are facing disconnection for their services because the cold weather policy will be ending on April 15th," said Sellhausen.

She said Western Dairyland already served double the number of households this first quarter of 2014 than last year.

Funding is at a limit, but thanks to Xcel Energy's $100,000 donation earlier this year to the 'Keep Wisconsin Warm' fund and other state money, Western Dairyland is working with all the customers that they can support.

To qualify, you must be income eligible, making less than 60 percent of the state median income and there must be an actual threat of disconnection.

Jean Minnich of Eau Claire said she is getting heating assistance and every bit of help makes a difference.

"I signed up, but I think there should be more done," said Minnich. "I think if they have the opportunity to do that (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program), people should take it up because in today's economy, you can't rub two dimes together to get rich."

Pat Boland, manager of Customer Policy and Assistance Programs, said that the 30,000 customers behind on payment received notices from Xcel Energy. A very small percentage of those customers actually get disconnected as long as they take appropriate action.

To arrange a payment plan with Xcel Energy, call 1-800-895-4999.

To apply for heating assistance with Western Dairyland, call 715-836-7511.


MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin utility companies can legally shut off heat to people who are behind on their payments starting April 16.

State law prohibits disconnecting customers during the coldest part of the year between Nov. 1 and April 15.

The state Public Service Commission is encouraging those who need assistance to contact their utility about getting on a payment plan or seeing if they qualify for financial assistance from the state.

Help is available for people whose household include is at or below 60 percent of the state median income level. That is $47,485 for a family of four.

People can apply for assistance through county social service offices, tribal governments and private nonprofit agencies.

AP-WF-04-05-14 1505GMT

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