Philadelphians fight high heating bills

PHILADELPHIA — About 7,600 households here have been without heat since November. Another 7,000 households are using alternative heating methods, such as kerosene or electric space heaters, to keep the winter cold at bay.

The consequences have been deadly: In November, 24 people died of causes linked to the natural gas shutoffs.

Gas rates have steadily increased since 2000. But in 2005, rates skyrocketed 24 percent. When coupled with very cold temperatures this winter, the rate hikes resulted in astronomical heating bills for all families, not just low-income families.

“My most recent bill is for $434,” said Bernice Jones. “Last year it was $231 for the same period.”

Doug Oliver, a spokesman for Philadelphia Gas Works, the city-owned utility, blamed the price increases on the damage caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and on the company’s $1 billion debt. “We can’t give away free gas,” he said.

For decades there was a moratorium on gas shutoffs between Dec. 1 and March 31. But this ended in the spring of 2004, when the Pennsylvania Legislature passed SB 677, a bill allowing utility companies to shut off gas service in the winter for nonpayment.

The law is supposed to protect families with incomes below $23,000, children under 12, adults over 65 and the sick. But mistakes are reported daily.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission fined PGW $100,000 when two of its customers were found dead of hypothermia after their gas was shut off in 2002 and 2003.

Galen Taylor, a spokesman for the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, said, “Safe housing and heat are human rights. SB 677 must be repealed.”

In the spring of 2004, PGW shut off the gas of 15,798 customers for nonpayment. PGW says it contacted all of them and tried to make arrangements for reconnection. Some got help from Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program or a crisis grant in 2005.

But there are new rules. Residential customers must pay 100 percent of their past-due bill. PGW charges $123 for reconnection. An additional $372 is charged to customers who refused PGW access to their building and where the utility dug up the street to shut off the gas.

Jonathan Stein, a Community Legal Services lawyer, said, “Thousands of low-income residents are without heat. They can’t afford to pay their bills, let alone these fees.”

The state utilities commission has stepped in to investigate and make recommendations.

By April 2006, 19 other states will have ended gas shut-off moratoria.

Many ask, “Why does a city-owned utility treat its customers so inhumanely?”

PGW has a reputation for bad mismanagement, poor service, waste, high rates and thievery, particularly since Mayor Frank Rizzo made PGW a haven for political patronage in the 1970s.

Republican state Rep. John Perzel has called for the sale of PGW to private interests. Because of PGW’s debt, however, the city would not make any money from such a sale. Moreover, customers fear that special programs to help low-income customers and senior citizens would be cut under private ownership.

As a rule, publicly owned utilities have benefited working people by providing lower-than-average rates and even municipal earnings. Other large, city-owned systems exist in Memphis, Tenn.; San Antonio, Texas; Long Beach, Calif.; and Omaha, Neb.