New leaders emerge to tackle utility crisis
by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, September 2004) In response to a crisis in energy affordability, new leadership is emerging on the Near West Side to address this often complex and daunting challenge. Consumers for Fair Utility Rates (CFUR), a grass roots group of west side residents, has garnered the attention of important local and statewide officials in its work to address rising utility costs and is demanding to be part of the decision making process to forge solutions to the crisis. On July 27 CFUR held a meeting to engage residents and state and local energy cost experts to address the crisis of high energy rates.

About 75 people gathered for the meeting at West Side Ecumenical Ministry’s Reimberger Auditorium at 5209 Detroit Avenue . The residents shared a wide variety of concerns with the panelists. Concerns ranged from how to get the bureaucracy to address personal financial crisis created by rising energy costs to finding creative ways to decentralize the energy creation and delivery process to gain more local control over the production and delivery of energy.

CFUR member Alan Forman told the group that the jump in the cost of natural gas in the 2000-2001 heating season prompted him to get involved with CFUR. He stressed that “it is important for the voice of the community to be heard and involved in policy making.” The jump in gas prices from just over $3 per thousand cubic feet to about $8 a thousand cubic created “an affordability crisis” for Forman’s two sets of utility bills, one for his home and one for his furniture restoration business. Forman noted that the utility rate increases came a time when people were losing their jobs and income was declining for those who are still working. In this climate, he said, fewer people get furniture restored and he was forced to act to reduce his energy costs.

Forman said he was able to reduce energy consumption in his 1906-built home by 25% over the previous year with insulation, heavy duty caulking and keeping the thermostat 10° lower. However, during the same time period, the cost for a basic unit of natural gas increased 78%, eating into his expected savings. Forman said he hates to think what would have happened if he didn’t take steps to reduce consumption.

Nanci McCormack, one of the original members of CFUR, a Detroit Shoreway resident and a member of the panel, says when the abrupt rise in gas prices occurred, she met with other community members to discuss how to “help the less fortunate.” She said the group soon realized, “we are the less fortunate. We are the working poor. We work every day and we are not getting anywhere.” She noted energy rates keep going up while incomes have stagnated, and utility providers are projecting further price increases for the upcoming winter heating season. While payment plans aid consumers by spreading higher winter costs over the whole year, rapidly escalating energy price hikes are having the effect of putting consumers in long-term indebtedness of high utility bills year-round.

McCormack says CFUR wanted to know from state officials, “are our voices being heard?” She noted CFUR’s active role in holding community forums and gathering information and resources to address the energy crisis. Addressing her fellow panelists and the crowd, McCormack said, “We believe we have earned the right to be part of the decisions. People on the panel represent us, we need to let them know our needs.”

Panelist Janine Migden-Ostrander, the newly appointed head of the Ohio Consumers’ Council (OCC), offered her office’s assistance as “advocates on behalf of residential consumers” through its toll-free hotline at 1-877-PICKOCC. OCC’s website at www.pickocc.org contains guidelines for applying for the Home Energy Assistance Program, the Percentage of Income plan and arrearages credit program, as well as tips on comparing prices among utility providers, increasing energy efficiency and dealing with telephone disconnects or reconnects.

State Representative Michael Skindell (D-13) talked about the impact of high utility rates in Northeast Ohio on jobs. He called for a public effort by the state to increase the availability of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and bio mass. Skindell said he has worked to introduce a bill to incorporate these changes into Ohio ’s energy policy.

Commissioner David Mason of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) said he and members of his staff came to the meeting to listen and share citizens’ concerns with the commission. Mason noted that PUCO only has control over a portion of energy costs. Concerning finding ways to increase funds to help consumers, Mason said, “We can’t order companies to provide more money to programs without having an opportunity for them to increase fees somewhere else.”

Legal Aid Attorney Joseph Meissner, who has represented consumer interests before PUCO on numerous filings, also served as a member of the panel. Meissner said deregulation of utility companies has created more complexity and confusion for consumers. Meissner urged residents to make use of energy assistance programs, comparing such programs to insurance policies. In this comparison, residents, in effect, pay into the policy by paying their utility bills, and should, therefore, tap the programs in time of need. Meissner quoted Winston Churchill in urging residents “never to give up.” He advised them to turn the thermostat down and wear sweaters, use florescent light bulbs to save on electric costs and to sign up for the Friendship Foundation program to reduce their phone bill. He urged residents to support Skindell’s bill to create more renewable energy in Ohio .

Rick O’Conner, Director of the Energy Conservation Programs at the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization, called for more resources to be devoted to the Housewarming funding designed to help people insulate their houses. He said DSCDO has 180 people on their waiting list for the program. Since DSCDO is only allowed to do 60 houses per year, those signing up for the program now have a three-year wait to get their houses insulated.

One resident shared her personal story of the struggle she faces trying to get her heat turned back on. The single mother has a disability that prevents her from working. With income of $68 per month she has no resources she can put toward a back gas bill of $3,400. She said despite tapping a number of community resources for help with the gas bill, she was not able to pay off the entire bill, coming up $175 short. The gas company will not turn on her heat unless the entire bill is paid off. Because she has no gas company service, the woman said she doesn’t qualify for any energy assistance programs. Thus she says she is unable to get her landlord, the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, to weatherize her apartment. A cracked window lets in cold air from outside. State Rep. Skindell and Migden-Ostrander of the Ohio Consumers’ Council both promised have their staff follow-up on the woman’s case and try to get her help to resolve her crisis. Legal Aid’s Meissner praised the woman’s perseverance in the face of adversity.

For more information about Consumer’s for Fair Utility Rates call Tim Walters at the May Dugan Center at 631-5800.

 

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