Thousands of Valley residents will endure a chilly winter or a sweltering summer when their utilities are shut off for failing to pay monthly gas and electric bills.
With energy prices and the population rising, the number of consumers whose utilities are shut off is expected to grow. Meanwhile, a federal program designed to mitigate the problem shortchanges Arizona, the program’s critics say.
A survey by the Tribune of the Valley’s four major utilities — Arizona Public Service, Salt River Project, Southwest Gas Corp. and Mesa Utilities Department — shows that the number of utility shut-offs for delinquent payments has been growing and is expected to be even higher in 2006.
Last year, a total of 108,275 utility customers had their gas, electricity and in Mesa, their gas and electricity, water, sewer and refuse collection, terminated for not paying their monthly utility bills.
"People are being pressured from just about every side," said Stephen Ahern, director of the Residential Utility Consumer Office.
Unlike the Midwest and East Coast, the problem in the Arizona desert is magnified during the summer months, when temperatures sometimes reach deadly peaks.
"You’ve got people dying in Arizona in the summer because they can’t afford to pay their electric bills to keep their air conditioners running," said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Director’s Association.
An 81-year-old Mesa woman without electricity at her home is reported to have died during last year’s record heat wave.
The Washington, D.C.-based agency is trying to persuade Congress to increase the federal funding for programs that help low-income people facing utility shut-offs such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program has $2.2 billion in funding, but the National Energy Assistance Director’s Association and other agencies are trying to persuade Congress to double that amount.
Arizona last year received $7 million in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds and expects the same amount in 2005-06, despite the growing population, and local officials believe the funding is too low for Arizona’s needs.
Most of the funds go to East Coast cities and those that must endure severe winters.
"The LIHEAP program is biased toward Arizona, an extreme heat state," said Ahern. "Seven million is not enough funding."
Kurt Knutson, manager of housing and redevelopment for Chandler, criticized the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently for policies that keep people in public housing from freezing to death in Arizona but ignore the dangers of dying from the sun’s heat.
"We’re still trying to convince HUD to pay for air conditioning in Arizona," said Knutson, whose office assists 303 public housing residents in Chandler.
Some states, such as Rhode Island, prohibit the shutting off of gas to homes during winter months and, in some Texas cities, shutting off the electricity in summer is prohibited.
No such policies exist in Arizona. However, the Arizona Corporation Commission, which sets utility rates, can prevent a shut-off if the temperature is above 120 degrees.
"The utilities, generally, are as good as they can be when working with low-income customers," said Heather Murphy, spokeswoman for the Corporation Commission.
The Valley has several programs, including Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, offered by the utilities and private agencies, such as the Salvation Army, that provide varying degrees of financial help when customers are unable to pay their bills.
James Todd, 47, is a single father of two boys ages 8 and 6, who rents a manufactured home in Mesa.
Todd, a former truck driver who lost his job because of health problems, accumulated an electric bill over several months because he had other basic expenses.
"I would pay about $100 a month, but then I ran out of money," said Todd, whose SRP bill eventually reached $340.
"I called SRP and they told me I should go to the Salvation Army for help," Todd said.
The Mesa branch of the Salvation Army accepted Todd’s request and paid the $340 bill for him, using funds through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Although no direct federal funds are given to the Valley utilities, each of them offers various programs to help lowincome customers and those unable to pay.
"We try to do a lot to help our customers," said Garth Andrews, director of customer relations for Southwest Gas Corp., which serves more than 570,000 customers in the Valley.
Last year, Southwest Gas Corp. shut off 22,644 meters for delinquent payment. So far this year, the company has shut off 15,356 — 7,288 fewer than for all of 2004.
"We’re constantly faced with making decisions," said Andrews. "It costs money to send workers out to shut off meters. We’ve also increased our customers by about 30,000 and we need more employees. This, combined with the various programs to help those unable to pay, has resulted in a lower shut-off number."
But, unlike cold states that primarily use natural gas for heat, the demand for electricity during the summer months is greater, as shut-off records for the areas biggest electricity provider — Arizona Public Service — confirms.
APS, which serves more than 1 million customers, last year shut off 35,704 meters and, so far this year, closed 37,088 — 1,384 more.
"A disconnection is our last resort," said Damon Gross, spokesman for APS.
"Our ultimate goal is to keep all of our customers in service. We want customers who are having trouble paying their bills to call us and let us know."
APS has several programs for low-income customers, including those who can receive a discount of as much as 30 percent off their bills, Energy-Wise, a weatherization program for those at or below the federal poverty level or for seniors and the disabled and project S.H.A.R.E — Service to Help Arizonans with Relief on Energy.
SRP spokesman Scott Harelson said the utility shuts off an average of 2,272 electric meters each month for delinquent payments.
"There is an increase in the number of shut-offs, but there has also been an increase in the number of SRP customers," Harelson said.
The utility last year served 840,590 customers in the Valley, including the East Valley, compared with 877,052 so far this year, he said.
In Mesa, more than 31,856 customers so far this year lost Mesa Utilities Department services compared with 24,139 for all of 2004, said Cindy Butcher, credit service supervisor.
"These figures include residents who did not pay their water, sewer, gas, electric and refuse collection bills," Butcher said. No breakdown of specific utility shut-offs is available, she said.
Mesa offers several programs, including suggestions on how to lower monthly gas and electric bills.