NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Local agencies assisting people who struggle to pay their utility bills are bracing for a flood of requests due to last week’s deep cold weather. Some say they have already seen higher demand for help.
An affordable housing advocate says regulators must make sure the expected higher than normal bills are fair.
Don Everard is Executive Director of Hope House, Inc., a non-profit in New Orleans.
“I’m anticipating that people who already owe $400, $500 will be owing $700 or $800 dollars or that kind of thing because a lot of the folks that come our way are already quite behind with past-due notices,” said Everard,
Hope House is not a citywide agency. It assists people in the 70130 zip code but Everard knows there is plenty of angst around the city over how high bills may be.
“It’s just going to be adding another layer of anxiety and debt on people,” said Everard.
Andreanecia Morris is Executive Director of HousingNOLA. She said some people received high bills ahead of the cold spell.
“We got nasty surprises in January, we got nasty surprises in February for people’s bills, so we expect that the March bill is going to be another nasty surprise and the council is jumping on this and immediately starting to investigate, you know, about the rolling blackouts but we need to make sure that we’re talking about the bills,” said Morris.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the New Orleans City Council put a moratorium in place to prevent utility companies from disconnecting service due to late or non-payment.
And on Tuesday the city council will hold a meeting to discuss Entergy New Orleans’ response to the frigid weather.
“Now, the issue though with moratoriums is it doesn’t address what you owe,” said Morris. “The moratoriums will stop your lights from getting cut off, we need to make sure that these bills are fair, that they’re fair and that people don’t owe hundreds of thousands of dollars because someone missed something, someone failed to account for this inclement weather.”
Everard says knowing they are behind in payments will cause many people stress.
“And they’re very conscious of that, that it’s going to come due at some point where they’re not able to handle it,” said Everard.
Total Community Action, the service agency in New Orleans for LIHEAP, which stands for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, says it has already seen a 20 percent increase in the number of people seeking applications for help and it is preparing to expand its hours of service to meet the increased demand. Further, TCA says a formal notice of the expanded hours will be posted on its website and disseminated through local media.
Morris says more government funds are needed to assist people who are struggling to keep up with utility costs, especially during the pandemic.
“No, our partners like TCA do not have enough resources to help everyone keep the lights on. That’s why you need a combination of these moratoriums but also the funding necessary,” she said.
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans says it has limited funding available for such services in certain parishes.
The Louisiana Public Service Commission, which regulates Entergy Louisiana’s service in 58 parishes, will hold a meeting of its own this week on the response to the cold weather.
“We expect the Louisiana Public Service Commission to look into this and to make sure that people aren’t, because if you were lucky enough to keep your lights on or keep your home heated that you are now not facing bills where you won’t be able to eat next month or pay for other vital services,” said Morris.
Everard is encouraged that regulators are asking questions.
“I think it’s encouraging that it’s not only happening here, but a lot of questions are being raised all over the South, anyway because of the similar situations that have taken place,” said Everard.
Morris said people should not have to go without necessities to meet the cost of utilities.
“We cannot keep putting people in these positions where they’re making these draconian choices. It’s not fair, it’s not right and it doesn’t lead to a healthy, just society,” said Morris.
And Morris said people who are struggling to pay utility bills should not be ashamed to ask for help.
“This has been part of the problem, removing the stigma. This is what needs to happen, we need to be guaranteeing safe, decent, resilient, and sustainable housing which includes water, gas, lights, those things are necessary for housing and should be guaranteed for all Americans, all Louisianans, and New Orleans and we need to demand that,” said Morris.
Everard says consumers should also note whether they used a lot more energy than usual.
“A piece of the advice is to be very conscious of the fact that they probably used a lot more electricity than before, so to not automatically assume that the energy company is at fault but if in talking with their neighbors they find out theirs is unusually high compared to what their neighbors have experienced then it would probably be appropriate to call for, you know, Entergy to come and do some checking,” he said.
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