Advocates urging summer break for poor's utility bills

TEXAS - Advocates for seniors, the poor and disabled called for a summer moratorium on disconnecting utility services for those who are unable to pay.

"The heat is already here," said Tony McElroy, Texas president of the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now. "We don't want to see one senior lose his or her life because they lost their electricity."

The group is asking the Texas Public Utility Commission to allow customers with disconnection notices to receive electricity and pay later, similar to last year. "PUC staff will review this petition and then issue a recommendation to commissioners on how to proceed," commission spokesman Terry Hadley said. A decision could be made within the next three weeks, he said. Activists said a moratorium would help people such as Milton Mays, an 84-year-old Third Ward resident whose power was cut off for three weeks recently.

"I asked them to wait until I got paid, but they shut off the power," he said. Mays' neighbors ran an extension cord to his house so the senior citizen and his family, including a stepdaughter with cerebral palsy, would have relief from the heat. "We helped him because you never know when you might need some help," neighbor Carolyn Jones said as she played with her grandchildren in the front yard.

Ellen Seaton of the Harris County Social Services Department said the county has about $1.7 million to assist residents with utility bills. Officials at Reliant Energy and TXU Energy reported that 12,500 and 13,000 customers, respectively, enrolled in payment plans through last summer's moratorium.

The moratorium began in August. Qualifying customers were given until Oct. 1 to make payments. "We realize that our seniors and low-income customers deserve and need some special assistance during summer months," Reliant spokeswoman Pat Hammond said.

TXU announced a voluntary moratorium on disconnections for low-income customers, those in critical care and people at least 62. In a prepared statement, TXU Energy's Chief Executive Officer Jim Burke said the company "is proud to be offering these protections for our customers." TXU Energy will also waive deposit requirements for low-income residential customers who are at least 62 years old and for all customers with a good record of timely payments.

TXU Energy will not charge customers penalties for canceling month-to-month electric service. State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said he wants the Legislature to pass a permanent moratorium, and limit fees and deposits for seniors and low-income families. His colleagues were unwilling to do so earlier this year.


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