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State fund for strapped electric customers drying up

The increasing number of Floridians who can't pay their electric bills may not be able to get the help they need because the state energy assistance program will likely run short of money.

"The bottom line is that our providers around the state are seeing a tremendous demand for services, a demand that will far outstrip the availability of funds," said Jon Peck, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Community Affairs.

The dryup in funding comes as Tampa Electric reported a 27 percent jump in the number of customers facing disconnection, while Progress Energy has seen its cutoffs increase 15 percent since last year. Paying for power could get even harder in the coming year. Both utilities plan to increase monthly bills by 10 percent or more.

"In the last month, we've gotten quite a few calls," said Crystal Watson, a receptionist at the Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater. Watson estimated that she gets at least five phone calls a day from people looking for help paying their electric bill. "It's people not being able to keep a job. They're getting laid off. The gas prices are getting too high."

One program that can help is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, called LIHEAP. The federally funded program offers one-time help with electricity bills, Peck said. The program helps families cope with unexpectedly high bills, often following very hot or very cold weather.

Florida received $28.5-million for the program this year, but the state has been overwhelmed by requests for help, Peck said. The state can seek more funds from the federal government, but other states are facing the same daunting demand for help. Northern states are already bracing for a winter that promises record heating bills as oil and natural gas prices continue to rise.

Adding to consumers' pain: soaring fuel costs are driving up the cost of power around the nation. Progress Energy plans to raise monthly bills starting Aug. 1. If its fuel increase request is approved by the Public Service Commission on Tuesday, Progress Energy customers will pay an additional $12.07 for every 1,000 kilowatt hours. If fuel rates continue to climb, customers of both Progress Energy and Tampa Electric could face additional fuel increases in January.

These increases come on top of Tampa Electric's plans to raise base rates next year, and Progress Energy's plans to start charging customers upfront for its $17-billion nuclear project.

Tampa Electric issued 321,835 disconnect warnings in February, March and April, up 27 percent from the same period last year, said utility spokesman Rick Morera. The number includes commercial and residential customers, and customers who have received multiple notices. Not all of those customers have actually had power turned off, he said.

Through the end of May, Progress Energy cut off power to 110,500 customers, up from 95,500 in the same period last year, said spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs. Some are abandoned investor properties, but others are families that are short of cash.

"Disconnecting someone's electricity is Progress Energy's last resort," Jacobs said. "We prefer to work with customers so if folks are having trouble making ends meet, they should call us."

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or (813) 225-3117.

.FAST FACTS

Where to go for help

Utilities can often help strapped families set up a payment plan. If that's not enough, here are locations where you can apply for energy assistance:

Hernando County: Salvation Army, (352) 796-1186.

Hillsborough County: Salvation Army, (813) 226-0055, ext. 300.

Pasco County: Christian Social Services, Land O'Lakes, (813) 995-0088; Neighborhood Care Center, Zephyrhills, (813) 780-6822; Pasco County Social Services, (352) 521-4572; Salvation Army, west Pasco, (727) 847-6321; St. James Catholic Church, (727) 862-8580; St. Vincent DePaul, Our Lady Queen of Peace Church, (727) 845-4955.

Pinellas County: Salvation Army of St. Petersburg, (727) 821-9123 or 822-4954; Religious Community Services, (727) 443-4031.

For information on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, go to www.floridacommunitydevelopment.org/liheap/about.cfm#Apply.

State fund for strapped electric customers drying up 06/27/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2008 4:40pm]

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