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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Local residents search for help making utility payments

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Ruth Johnson has been able to keep the lights on at the apartment she shares with her daughter on the north side of Indianapolis, but she’s had some close calls. 
Johnson got behind on the bills and received shut-off notices. She pays $185 each month for the electric bill, but the balance on her account got up to $231 in January. 

“The electric bill is something else,” she said. “I’ll say it like that.” 

Johnson, 91, was able to get help from Women in Touch Ministries and avoided the shut-off, but she’s still in the process of working out a payment plan with Indianapolis Power & Light Company (IPL). 

IPL disconnected residential service 6,360 times from the beginning of the year to Feb. 15, according to data provided by the utility company. There were about 11,000 residential disconnections in January and February 2020. IPL has about 450,000 residential customers. 

IPL offers two types of payment extensions: short-term and long-term. 
The short-term extension is for customers who only need a few extra days to pay a bill. Approval is based on account status and payment history. The long-term extension divides payments over three to six months. 

Citizens Energy Group has disconnected 2,686 water services and 2,641 natural gas services since Sept. 11, 2020, according to the company.

Citizens offers a payment plan for up to 12 months. It also has natural gas bill discounts through its Universal Service Program, and customers can get credits for wastewater through the Low Income Customer Assistance Program.

Olga Daniels also needed help from Women in Touch Ministries for a couple of her utility bills in late 2020. She and her husband are on disability, but the pandemic brought higher bills than normal. 

Daniels, 67, helped some family members through their financial struggles, and she said the pandemic has simply forced them to stay home more often than normal, using more electricity and keeping the heat turned higher. 

Daniels didn’t have her services disconnected but said it was difficult not being certain if she could pay some bills. 

“It was kind of traumatic,” she said, “because I hadn’t had to have assistance before. It was kind of a blow to being more independent.” 

Robert Guell, an economics professor at Indiana State University, said the criteria many utility companies use when determining eligibility for payment programs or extensions — looking at payment history, for example — creates a disparate impact. 

“It effectively means that African Americana are far more likely to see their power disconnected than whites,” he said. 

Utility companies were prohibited from disconnecting service from March 2020 through the middle of August 2020 because of the pandemic. Indiana prohibits utilities from disconnecting service from Dec. 1 to March 15 if the customer is receiving help from an Energy Assistance Program (EAP) or if they qualify for the EAP and can prove to the provider that they’ve applied. 

John Boner Neighborhood Centers coordinates the local EAP, along with other organizations, but did not respond to questions about how much money the program started with or how much it has remaining. Learn more about eligibility and apply online at indyeap.org. 

Residents who need help paying bills can also contact the trustee’s office in their township. Contact information is listed online. 

Leigh Riley Evans, director of community development at Eastern Star Church, said 10% of the church’s operating budget goes to the church’s CARE Center, which provides emergency assistance. Last year, Evans said, that amounted to about $1.1 million, on top of individual donations. 

The CARE Center has needed every bit of that money. Evans said the center normally helped 20 to 25 people per month before the pandemic, but that number got as high as 50 to 60 people per week last year. It’s now more like 25 per week. 

“It was sad,” she said. “It was overwhelming on some days. It starts to weigh on your psyche.” 

The CARE Center is currently closed to in-person visitors. Learn more by contacting wecare@easternstarchurch.org or call 317-547-5483 during the week. 

Carl Ellison, president and CEO of Indiana Minority Health Coalition (IMHC), said the various programs meant to patch together a safety net are only Band-Aids, not real solutions. 

IMHC received $100,000 in COVID-19 relief funds from United Way of Central Indiana and distributed funds to three organizations, including Women in Touch Ministries. 
Because of his role with IMHC, people expect Ellison to talk about the so-called social determinants of health. He said he doesn’t spend much time doing that, though, because America has the resources to improve people’s lives. 

“If you provide a better economic floor for poor people, the nation’s health will improve,” he said. 

Sanya Carley, a professor at the O’Neill School of Public Affairs at Indiana University, is part of a research team that has been tracking about 2,000 households across the country over the course of the pandemic and said there has been an increase in both energy insecurity — not being able to pay bills — and disconnections. 

One of the coping strategies she learned of when families can’t heat their home is to disconnect the dryer vent from the wall and let the children stand behind the dryer to get warm. 

“Not being able to pay your energy bill is a form of material hardship that is arguably as important as other forms of material hardships,” she said. 

Carley said there needs to be an increase in funding for bill payment assistance, as well as programs to help households upgrade things such as insulation to increase energy efficiency. 
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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