Help Available To Those Struggling To Pay Utility Bills
By Chris Collins
Facing a below-zero night in Baker County without the comfort of electricity to ignite a furnace, power a space heater or even just to illuminate a dark room can be a frightening thought.
Help is available for those having trouble paying their power bills and facing the dilemma of receiving a shut-off notice in the mail.
Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative (OTEC) warns co-op members a couple of times before it takes the extreme action of shutting off power to their homes, says Steve Schauer, Oregon Trail Electric Consumers Cooperative director of member and program services.
A letter notifying them that their payment is late is the first warning. There is about a 20-day period for members to make a payment from the time the bill is mailed from the OTEC office until it's due, Schauer said. A day after payment is due, a letter goes out notifying the customer that the bill is delinquent. And they then have about 18 days to make a payment or to call the office to work out a payment plan.
"We know there are difficult times," Schauer said, adding that OTEC is willing to make arrangements for payment. "But it is the member's responsibility to keep those arrangements."
Those who don't act to make payments next will receive a phone call alerting them that their power will be disconnected in 24 hours if the bill is not paid, Schauer said.
Throughout the process, OTEC employees counsel delinquent customers on how they can work toward making a payment.
One avenue is to seek help through Community Connection and Oregon's Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
To qualify, Baker County households must meet certain income guidelines. The limit for a family of four is $41,744 a year; the monthly limit is $3,478.67.
Renters also are eligible for assistance, depending on their rental agreements and landlord cooperation.
The low-income energy assistance program, funded with federal dollars that flow to the state and then to Community Connection, provides a one-time payment made directly to the utility, said Mary Jo Carpenter, Baker County manager for Community Connection. More information is available by calling Community Connection at 541-523-6591.
Other funding also is available to low-income households that are behind in their utility payments or at risk for having service shut off, she said. OTEC membership is required to receive that funding, but it can be allocated to other fuel sources, she said.
Customers of Idaho Power Co. get a break during December, January and February when the utility company, which is regulated by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, is required to place a moratorium on turning off electrical service for failure to pay by households that include children, elderly or infirm people.
The moratorium ends March 1 and balances must be paid or payment arrangements made by that date, an Idaho Power Co. press release stated.
The Salvation Army works with Idaho Power Co. to assist IPC customers in Baker County through Project Share, said Holli Diamond-Montgomery, The Salvation Army's Eastern Oregon Field and Service Center director. That help goes to residents of Huntington, Durkee, Richland, Halfway and Oxbow, who are served by Idaho Power Co.
IPC customers donate to help those in need pay their bills and in turn Idaho Power sends a donation to The Salvation Army, Diamond-Montgomery said.
OTEC, as a rural electric cooperative, is under no regulatory requirement to offer a wintertime moratorium on shutoffs.
Co-op members who would like to help needy families may, however, purchase gift certificates or make a contribution to the account of a person in need at any time, Schauer said.
He said OTEC has chosen not to grant a moratorium during the winter, as Idaho Power does, because the balance of unpaid bills would be passed along to other members down the road.
Instead, he hopes customers in need will seek other options.
Both Idaho Power and OTEC also offer budget payment plans that allow customers to pay a flat monthly rate based on the previous year's usage rather than seeing their bills spike during wintertime.
"We do review these accounts and take a look on a quarterly basis," Schauer said. "We notify customers if the usage goes up abnormally," and adjustments to payments can be made to avoid owing a more unmanageable amount at year's end.
Idaho Power also offers a winter payment plan that allows customers to make lower payments November through March. That service again is available to households with children, elderly or infirm residents. Those who use the system are required to pay any balance on the account or make new payment arrangements on April 1.
The Baker Elks Lodge has had an assistance fund in the past, but that has been discontinued because it had become too heavy a burden, said Harvey Cookson, lodge secretary.
"We don't pay light, gas or water bills anymore," he said. "We're sticking strictly to medical."
Those in need of help purchasing such things as eye glasses, dentures or prescription medication usually are referred to the Elks Lodge by Community Connection, he said. There is an application to complete, which is then reviewed by a three-person committee that decides whether or not to approve it.
"It's not automatic," he said. "You have to wait for the committee to say yea or nay."
Some churches also provide help for people who face having their power shut off or other emergencies.
Cash assistance and food benefits are available to those who qualify through the Oregon Department of Human Resources office at 3165 10th St.
Information about other resources can be found online at oregonhelps.org, a free prescreening program that guides people through a process to estimate their potential eligibility for a variety of state assistance programs. The Oregon Helps site also directs people to 211info.org, which provides free information about health, community, and social services available in every Oregon county.
The Oregon State University Extension Service offers a variety of suggestions and tips on household budgeting topics as well at this website: extension.oregonstate.edu/tough_times.
For those who do not have access to a home computer, free computer use is available at the Baker County Public Library, 2400 Resort St., during regular hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.