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Iowans struggle to pay heating bills

BY MITCH MCANDREW | DECEMBER 03, 2014 5:00 AM

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In Iowa’s frigid climate, turning up the heat can cost a small fortune, and Iowans’ wallets are starting to feel the burn.

According to recent data, Iowans are struggling to pay their heating bills as winters grow colder, despite the apparent decrease in energy rates.

But while the issue has only recently started to gain attention, it is by no means new.

“Clearly, energy just isn’t affordable for a significant number of folks out there,” said Jerry McKim, the director of the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, a federally funded, state-operated program that assists families with energy costs.

At the beginning of the year, McKim calculated from the moratorium report that around 16,000 homes did not have heat when the winter cold set in this year.

This number is derived from those affected by the Moratorium Law, which prohibits the disconnection of energy between Nov. 1 and March 31 in low-income households that qualify for energy assistance.

In order to qualify for energy assistance, a household must verify its total income is equal to or less than 150 percent of the 2013 federal poverty guidelines, according to the assistance program’s website.

Despite the magnitude of those statistics, McKim finds 16,000 a low-ball number.

“It doesn’t include rate-regulated homes, which would no doubt boost the number even higher,” McKim said.

While these numbers may seem alarming, Ruth Comer, a spokeswoman for MidAmerican Energy, contests they are not as quite bad as they seem.

“The number of disconnections are only slightly higher than they were in October a year ago,” she said.

She also noted these figures do not account for reconnection.

MidAmerican disconnected 3,814 homes last year across Iowa, but 3,274 of these were reconnected.

“It’s reasonable to conclude that many households that were disconnected could also be included in those that we reconnected a short time later,” she said.

While there is no way to calculate this number explicitly, she said, many customers are only disconnected for a day or two.

Still, the number of Iowans with energy bills past due has not decreased from 2013, and the debt is piling up.

“Iowans with past-due bills are consistent from 2013 to 2014, and the amount owed is much larger than it was last year,” Comer said.

A major contributing factor in this increase is the extremely harsh winter Iowa experienced in 2013-14.

“Last winter was the worst of the decade, so the high bills weren’t surprising,” said Dan Tormey, the manager of customer service for the Iowa Utilities Board.

The exceptional cold last winter spurred much higher energy consumption, which increased the amount of Iowans unable to afford heat.

For this reason, energy costs this coming winter are projected to be less, but McKim disagrees.

“[Last winter] gives the impression that everything will be much more rosy this winter, when it won’t,” McKim said.

McKim explained the projected costs are based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather reports, which predicted a warmer winter in 2014.

“I think that’s suspect, because we just had one of the coldest Novembers on record,” McKim said.

Fortunately, last year’s extreme winter resulted in increased awareness of the issues of unaffordable heat.

“The issue received so much attention last year that the state opened up a docket to investigate,” Tormey said.

Although this is certainly a step in the right direction, McKim said lots of work remains to be done.

“Things just aren’t getting better quick enough,” he said.


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