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Cold case

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When the winter utility bills come for Gail Scott McGhee's Detroit home, she has to devote about half of her income to pay them. The monthly gas and electric bills for the heat and lights for her and her three grandchildren can reach $800 in the coldest months.

"It's really too high," the community organizer says. "I'm on a fixed income. "

As a member of the group ACORN — an acronym for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — McGhee is calling for a new state utility policy that would cap bills at a certain percentage of income for people below a certain level.

"The bills are just entirely too high period for people to pay," she says.

Such a change to utility rates and payments would take legislative action, says Judy Palnau, spokeswoman for the Michigan Public Service Commission. But it's not coming any time soon. "I'm not aware of any legislation being introduced," she says.

David Lagstein, the head organizer for Michigan ACORN, calls high utility bills an "ongoing issue" in Michigan that requires constant promotion of payment assistance programs to increase public awareness of them.

"This is an issue across the board," he says. "This is not just the lowest income folks exclusively." Lagstein is drafting a proposal to cap utility rates at a percentage of people's income. "We're looking at pushing both the PSC [Michigan Public Service Commission] and the Legislature on it," he says.

A similar program exists in Pennsylvania where some cash grants are available for people with difficulty paying their energy bills or for residents who have emergency repairs.

"One is a cash grant paid directly to the utility to help offset the cost of your monthly bill. It's a one-time grant opportunity," says Stacey Ward, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. "There's also a crisis grant which would go toward repairs if your furnace is broken."

Payments are determined each year depending on what funds are available, Ward says, with $250 to $300 being the average amount. The program is in its second year. About 385,000 families received cash grants during 2005-2006, and nearly 154,000 families received crisis assistance.

John Austerberry, spokesman for DTE, says he doesn't know details of capped payments plans, but he says the utility has several program to assist low-income customers. Winter protection programs for both low-income and senior citizens ensure that heat is not cut off for non-payment during the winter, he says.

"We don't want to shut off our customers obviously, and we work quite diligently to make sure that they're aware that they have options," Austerberry says. "They need to contact us if they think they're going to have trouble paying their utility bills. It's much easier for us to work with them before they get into a serious arrearage than after. "

According to Austerberry, about 31,000 customers participate in payment plans throughout DTE's coverage area, which extends from the tip of the thumb to northern Monroe County and west across Washtenaw and Ingham counties. DTE has about 2.2 million customers.

State Sen. Irma Clark-Coleman (D-Detroit) has introduced legislation to cap some senior citizens' electric. "For senior citizens who are on a fixed income, this bill will help provide a certainly on their utility bills in months when their electricity usage is higher than usual," she says. Under Clark-Coleman's proposed policy, utility companies could not charge these customers more when their monthly usage exceeded their already agreed-upon rate.

McGhee does participate in DTE's plan to spread her utility payments throughout the year. She pays more than her billed amounts in the low energy months but less in the high-usage winter season. "You're never solving the situation at all. You're still going to find yourself paying a high bill," she says.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com

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