10 percent electricity hike hammers York County poor

09/19/2013 1:59 AM

09/19/2013 11:29 AM

A week ago, the poor in York County got poorer.

They sure knew it, even though the story of Duke Energy’s raising rates 10 percent over the next two years received barely a mention.

But the raising of rates for people who already struggle to pay their bills is well known at PATH in York. The proper name is People Attempting to Help.

More than half of all the donations that come in to PATH go to help the poor in York keep the lights on, and a week ago everybody at PATH knew bills were ready to go up again.

Kimberly Mullinax, mother of three, sat at PATH Wednesday with a Duke bill that showed a disconnect date of Sept. 17. On Monday, Mullinax went to PATH to try to beat the clock, arriving a half-hour before it opened.

Despite that, dozens were in line ahead of her, and she never got in the door.

Mullinax begged Duke for an extension and then made sure she was at PATH Wednesday so that, hopefully, when her kids came home from school, they would not be in the dark. Tough to run a breathing machine for the kids that need it for asthma treatments without electricity.

Tough to keep food cold without a refrigerator that works on electricity.

Tough to do homework in the dark.

“I know all about rate hikes,” Mullinax said. “I’m here because I couldn’t afford the last rate hike.”

The recent rate hike was hailed by Duke – which had asked for a 16 percent hike – as a “settlement” with the South Carolina Public Service Commission, an agency that apparently forgot its middle name.

The “public” sure jammed into PATH’s waiting room Wednesday. When asked how many had disconnect notices, most raised their hands. How many had kids living in those homes? All hands went up.

The “public” at PATH was black and white, Hispanic, too.

Duke, the largest energy provider in America, whose shareholders ponied up $6 million to bring the Democratic National Convention to Charlotte a year ago, only made a $339 million profit last quarter.

Nobody at PATH on Wednesday had 339 cents.

Duke needs all this money from its 65,000-plus customers in York, Chester and Lancaster counties – more than 600,000 all told in South Carolina – to pay for cutting trees, security at power plants and upgrades.

PATH is no child’s play. A shopping cart filled with fresh-picked apples dropped off from a western County orchard was brought into the waiting room. The clients leaped at the apples like leopards on an antelope.

Duke, and its employees in York, give generously to help PATH clients and the generosity is crucial to PATH, said Cheryl Curtin, the charity’s executive director.

Still, her clients have struggled to pay utility bills, Curtin said.

“The utility bills are the lion’s share of what we pay out to help people survive,” she said.

The rate hike also affects people who don’t even buy electricity from Duke. School districts such as York are on the hook for about $100,000 in energy costs with the increase. All school districts in all three counties are Duke customers, and will see rates go up.

Taxpayers will foot that bill.

At PATH, a woman showed a Friday disconnect for a bill of $117. She and her disabled daughter were 48 hours from darkness.

People all over the room waited for help going over forms that proved they were poor enough, desperate enough, for help.

In the back storeroom at PATH, volunteers bagged and carted donated food. They worked with smiles and huge hearts. The carts were taken outside to those people who are hungry.

Corrie “Pat” Cartee, 71, using a walker, held a bag with ice cream in it as a volunteer loaded her old truck with groceries that are the difference between life and death. She spoke about what a 10 percent increase in a power bill means to people like her.

She held her hand to the ice cream.

“It means some babies will sleep in the cold this winter, is what it means,” Cartee said.

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