Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Freezing to death. Literally.

The Philadelphia Gas Works has a a problem: Something like 8 percent of their customers are not paying their bills. It is hard to function with out big losses when you are losing that much money. Still, this is really an awful thing. The State has given PGW the ability to shut off people's heat, in the winter, without State approval. Why is this so awful? From the Article:

An arctic chill had enveloped Western Pennsylvania in January 1976 when Sophia Easer's body was found in her house in the Pittsburgh suburb of Munhall. She had huddled beneath a rug, trying vainly to escape the subzero temperatures.

Easer, 82, froze to death in an unheated home. Two weeks earlier, the local utility had shut off her gas because of unpaid bills.

Easer's death spurred the state Public Utility Commission to adopt strict limits on cold-weather shutoffs. But this winter, one key restriction - that the PUC itself approve any winter shutoff - became the latest casualty of the troubles at Philadelphia Gas Works.

Under a bill signed into law last month by Gov. Rendell, utilities can shut off service to all but their poorest customers at any time of year.

No PUC approval is necessary.
If PGW is hemorrhaging money, which it assuredly is, there are a few things they could do. First off, join the 21st century and let people pay their bills online. Second, lobby for a streamlined process that at least has some protections for those who cannot protect themselves. (Ms. Easer, the woman who froze in Pittsburgh actually had a sealed envelope for the gas company sitting to be mailed, and plenty of money to pay it. They suspect she simply had alzheimers, and forgot. And for that, she died.)

PGW forced the State's hand last month:

To emphasize its point that unpaid bills cost all its customers, the Gas Works last year proposed a monthly surcharge to cover them.

That was enough to convince House Speaker John M. Perzel, a Northeast Philadelphia Republican, that it was time to crack down.

"What they wanted to do was come back to my people who are paying their bills and attach a $67 surcharge," Perzel said in an interview. "It's a matter of fairness."

During the summer, Perzel won House passage of a bill he says would have addressed PGW's billing needs, not only by dropping barriers to winter shutoffs but also by blocking schemes that some customers use to dodge payments throughout the year, such as switching an account to a new name.

Rendell said he agreed to the bill only after winning concessions that maintain crucial protections for the poor and for households with young, elderly or ailing residents.

But he echoed the argument that the PUC's approach left utilities with too little leverage.

"The old rules protected the vulnerable, but they also opened the door to widespread abuse," Rendell said.
As someone who was ready to choke on my dinner when I saw the size of my gas bill (for a one bedroom apartment, no less) I understand and agree that I, and you, cannot be subsidizing people who can pay, but are not. I cannot afford to waste that money each month. That said, I do not see the effective safeguards that the Governor talks about. And I worry that the only thing that will put those safeguards into place will be people dying, be it in fires caused by space heaters or by a few people freezing to death. Literally.


At 4:36 AM, Blogger Charles said...

Boy do you know how to kill a buzz. Believe it or not, I actually tried to Blog today, but nothing popped out. Well, at least I’ll sleep good knowing that my parents are paying for deadbeats.

At 12:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I used to rent when I lived in Philly, I reached the point where i wouldn't even take an apartment unless heat was paid by the landlord.

There are so many apartments in Center City that have crappy insulation and air shooting in at almost every window that you'd pay through the roof for heating if the landlord didn't cover it. The very first apartment i had when i was in college, you had to have the thermostat around 85 just to get the apartment to around 65. That sucks when you're paying the heating bill, but if the landlord is paying is and they don't wanna fix up the cracks and the leaks at the windows, that's on them.

I think back to the heating bills on that first college apartment and I think me and my fiance pay less for heating now in a two bedroom condo than I used to on the tiny studio.


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