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WREC customers struggle to pay high utility deposits in Hernando

SPRING HILL — When Bobbie Hamilton contacted Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative Inc. recently to get the power turned on at the Spring Hill house that she had just closed on, she was shocked at the amount the utility demanded.

"They said it would be $750," said Hamilton, 33. "I about fell on the floor. That's more than my mortgage is going to be."

It's another sign of the ongoing tough economic times.

While utilities have always required deposits, and the two dominant power providers in Hernando County have not changed their formulas for years in how they determine the deposit amount, people who are struggling to pay for a house are stunned by the amount required to get their electricity provided.

It is not only the customers who are feeling the pinch. David Lambert, a spokesman for WREC, said the not-for-profit cooperative is being squeezed by the recession as well.

"We have had so many foreclosures, so many people walking away from their homes," said Lambert. "If somebody leaves owing a bill which has been significant, then the other members have to recoup that cost."

To determine the deposit amount, WREC considers a person's credit history using a third-party credit agency. If the score doesn't fall into the satisfactory range, the deposit is $300 or double the previous tenant's highest monthly bill, whichever is higher.

And with utility rates higher today than in past years, the bills on which the deposits are figured are that much higher.

Hamilton, who said she pays all of her bills on time but has a limited credit history, said basing the deposit on a prior tenant's usage seems unfair.

"Why are they charging me, someone who has never lived in the house before, based on what someone else used?" she asked.

Some have taken their complaints to the state Public Service Commission, which regulates utility industries.

"We get complaints daily about electric deposits," said spokeswoman Cindy Muir. From January through September, the PSC received 850 inquiries statewide on that topic.

Progress Energy, which also serves customers in Hernando County, has a similar deposit policy. The utility examines credit ratings and prior electric usage at the residence.

Those customers without a high enough score must pay a deposit that's twice the average of the last tenant's monthly electric usage.

Both utilities return the deposit after two years of on-time payments, with Progress Energy adding 6 percent interest, according to spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs.

But for some people, putting down a deposit either means forgoing other bills or asking for help, said Jean Rags, Hernando County Health and Human Services director. Between January and the end of September, her office received 993 calls from people in Hernando County seeking help with utility deposits and bills.

And 2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares received 2,423 more between October 2009 and the end of September 2010, said center manager Angela Pelegrini. "About 80 percent of the calls are for electrical assistance," she said.

Sometimes people are able to find financial help from churches, the Salvation Army, or Mid-Florida Community Services.

Chris Neuberg lives in Brooksville with his family, which includes three small children. They have moved four times over the last year and each time have struggled to cobble together the necessary money for a deposit.

"I'm barely making it," said Neuberg. "I hate asking for help. I had to this time."

Where you live determines your electric provider. And that lack of choice also frustrates some residents.

"They've got you," said Eddie Kubica. He struggled when WREC misapplied his original deposit to his father's account, which took several weeks to sort out. In the meantime, he had to find money for another deposit.

Ratings at the Better Business Bureau of West Florida, which are based on complaints and a company's success in resolving them, vary for the two utilities. Progress Energy has an "A," while WREC has earned a "C."

Lambert said WREC does not have the resources of a giant, profit-making utility, but tries to help members when it can.

"We will always work with any member to try to help them out in a situation with their bill," he said. "Sometimes, you can only do so much."

Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at slmarshall.sptimes@gmail.com.

WREC customers struggle to pay high utility deposits in Hernando 11/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 9:29pm]
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