Lowcountry agencies overrun with calls for utility bill help

Timothy Backman of James Island applies for financial assistance with his electric bill with the help of operations outreach director Simeco Robinson on Tuesday at the Charleston County Human Services Commission. Backman, on disability, has fallen behind

Timothy Backman quit his job as a maintenance worker with Charleston Water Systems nearly two years ago as he battled cancer.

While he lives mortgage-free in a cinder block home on James Island that his parents built in 1969, heating and cooling its 10 rooms costs around $600 per month, and if Backman doesn't make his overdue payments by next week, he loses power.

He's not alone.

Every day, people like Backman, 54, call the Charleston County Human Services Commission, Trident United Way or other agencies in the metro area looking for help with their utility bills.

The hotter-than-normal summer and the weak economy have only exacerbated the need.

Through June of this year, for cooling assistance alone, the federally funded Human Services Commission helped 1,873 households at a cost of $997,000. By comparison, last year it assisted 1,261 households during the same time span with $471,000.

"We definitely have more people in need than we have money," agency Deputy Director Reba Hough- Martin said.

Adding to the problem is the region's abundance of older homes that aren't well-insulated, she said. They often are occupied by the elderly who don't have money for repairs, and they have higher utility bills relative to the size of their home, she added.

The agency helps insulate homes, but it has a long waiting list and limited funds.

So many people have asked for help paying their utility bills and other expenses that the Human Services Commission recently added a second receptionist and three new phone lines to its existing seven to field about 4,500 calls a week.

"We don't know how many calls we receive altogether because of all of the people who can't get through," Hough-Martin said. "We want to add a third receptionist if we can."

Last year the agency doled out $4.7 million and helped 11,324 households with heating and cooling.

At Trident United Way, the story is the same.

John Boyle has heard it all summer.

"I have a shut-off notice, and I don't know what I'm going to do," the community resources coordinator said of people seeking help with their electric bills.

Boyle heard it more in July as excessive heat warnings were posted day after day.

In June, 39.7 percent of all requests for help through United Way were for utility payments. That number increased to 41.5 percent in July.

"Our call rate during the last quarter was up 19 percent over the previous quarter and the same quarter last year," Trident United Way spokesman Barry Waldman said.

Boyle often hears that people are about to lose their electric service because their work hours have been cut, they are unemployed or are on a fixed income.

"We also have too many senior citizens calling us that they have really high bills this summer and can't handle them," she said.

June's temperatures for Charleston were 5.2 degrees above average.

In July, Charlestonians sweltered through 25 consecutive days of temperatures above 90 degrees. The average high temperature was 91.6. In July 2009, it was 89.8.

The overall average temperature was about 1 degree above the norm for the month because the figure was skewed by the cool front that blew through during the Fourth of July weekend with well-below-average readings, according to the National Weather Service.

Neither South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. nor Santee Cooper, the two main power companies that generate electricity and serve the Charleston market, reported peak demands so far this summer, but both said they try to help people who are having trouble with their bills.

At SCE&G, which has about 300,000 electric customers in metro Charleston, customers can equalize their payments each month through budget billing. Project Share, made up of donations from SCE&G workers and customers, also provides utility assistance.

Reflected in bills that go out Thursday, SCE&G customers will notice a new weather normalization statement that bases rates on the 15-year average for the billing period rather than on power usage during abnormally high or low temperatures.

"It will take some of the weather-related volatility like we saw this past winter out of the equation," SCE&G spokesman Eric Boomhower said.

SCE&G bills are being prorated for weather-related usage spikes after July 16. That's the same day the utility's first-of-three rate increases over the next two years kicked in. The rate hike was 2.5 percent.

Boomhower said the utility always gets complaints from some of its 659,000 customers, but there hasn't been a marked change during the summer's hot streaks.

At Santee Cooper, spokeswoman Mollie Gore said the Moncks Corner-based utility is receiving a few more calls than normal from customers about their bills, but she said it's the result of the heat arriving earlier and being persistent for most of the summer.

The utility, like SCE&G, offers energy saving tips on its website and through mailings.

Santee Cooper's residential bills also are higher this year because they reflect the first base rate increase in 13 years of 7.6 percent, which took effect in November. There's also a 1 percent surcharge during summer months to reflect the higher cost of generating electricity, Gore said.

At Berkeley Electric Cooperative, spokesman Eddie McKnight said May, June and July have had up to 15 percent more days requiring higher cooling than last year.

Of the three utilities that serve the Charleston area, Santee Cooper offers the lowest rate.

For instance, the average residential Santee Cooper customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity in July paid $104.70. At Berkeley Electric, customers paid $114.73, and at SCE&G, the rate was $120.90, which reflects the latest rate increase.

"I'm sure we will see bills coming out of this really hot spell higher than we would expect in a normal summer," Boomhower at SCE&G said.

Backman, an SCE&G customer, is not looking forward to that.

His lone monthly income is a $1,064 disability check. His health insurance from work ran out in the spring.

The Human Services Commission was able to help him pay a past-due balance of more than $1,200 and last month's bill of $598.12. Family members have helped him out as much as they could, but he ran out of options.

"I can't sleep for worrying about it," Backman said while applying for aid Tuesday. "This is a last resort."

Reach Warren Wise at 937-5524 or wwise@postandcourier.com.