Andrew Dys

March 15, 2014

Cold winter utility bills arrive, hammer Rock Hill's needy and poor with some costs up 20 percent

Record cold in January plus snowstorms meant record power usage that customers now have to pay for.

Helping the needy pay utility bills at Hope Inc. in Rock Hill starts at 9 a.m. By 7:45 a.m. Wednesday, the porch was filled with people hoping to get in.

The assistance the nonprofit gives can be the difference between having lights and heat, and living in a cold, dark house.

All these people had to deal with record cold in January and snowstorms in February, pushing electricity usage to record-high winter levels. Higher usage means higher power bills.

Duke Energy, which raised rates 10 percent last year for 65,000 area customers and raised them 6 percent the years before, saw an 11 percent increase in January consumption after a record usage period when temperatures dropped to 5 degrees. Duke officials said upgrades to its systems forced rates up.

Rock Hill raised its rates last year for more than 30,000 customers for the 10th year in a row, with a cumulative rate increase over that decade of more than 30 percent. City officials said the cost of buying power mandated the rate increases.

York Electric Cooperative’s rates went up 1 percent last year.

“The only way to stay alive when it was that cold was to have heat,” said Mary Adams, who was waiting for help from Hope Inc. “Electric heat is all I have for me and all my family. Kids have to have heat. I knew the bill would come. I knew I didn’t have what it would cost.”

The power bill Adams brought with her from her Spruce Street home showed a balance of $1,452, which includes past-due charges from previous cold months. If she doesn’t come up with $873.97 by Friday, disconnection day, she and her family

“will be sitting in the dark after the sun goes down,” she said.

In the next row of chairs at Hope Inc., sat Curtis Hinton, hoping for a miracle. The disabled Vietnam War veteran’s overdue amount stared back at him – $272.73.

He sure doesn’t have $272.73.

“When it was so cold this winter, if I didn’t have heat, I would have been dead,” Hinton said. “The city has raised the rates 10 years running, and who do they think has to pay these bills? It’s people like me. And I don’t got it. I’m on a fixed income. I’m disabled. I fought for my country.”

Volunteer Lindsay Waldrop – everybody helping others at Hope Inc. is a volunteer – talked about the brutal winter bills he has seen.

“We have had people come in whose bills went up $67, and we have seen people who come in and owe hundreds, even more than a thousand dollars,” Waldrop said. “Clearly, the cold winter has caused bills to jump. And the rates went up before that. Double-whammy.”

For nonprofits that help the poor, the needy, the elderly and those on fixed incomes, the problem is that donations – like the income from jobs or Social Security or other sources of their clients – hasn’t kept up with electricity rate increases, much less the usage increases during a cold winter.

Each of the area utilities has a program through which customers can donate to places similar to Hope Inc. In 2013 alone, Duke Energy customers in South Carolina donated more than $870,000 to places such as the Fort Mill Care Center, People Attempting to Help in York, and the Clover Area Assistance Center, spokesman Ryan Mosier said.

Despite the generosity of customers, the bite from rate hikes and increased usage hits everyone. Sometimes twice.

When the utilities announced rate increases last year, all area school districts were hit with double-digit rate increases to heat hundreds of buildings. The total costs in York, Chester, and Lancaster counties from the increase alone reached into the millions.

Clover schools alone so far this winter have spent about $90,000 more on utilities, spokesman Mychal Frost said. Fort Mill schools’ heating costs jumped almost 13 percent, spokeswoman Kelly McKinney said.

Who pays those costs? Taxpayers – the same people who have to pay home heating costs. That’s money that can’t be spent on books, teachers or school supplies.

The entire waiting room at Hope Inc. nodded in agreement that there had been no choice when the cold hit this winter but to keep the heat on and try to find the money to pay later.

“This cold started to hit people like me in December,” Adams said, “and every month the bill goes up. But when you are on a fixed income like me, your money to pay the bill doesn’t go up.”

For Hinton, the bill for a cold winter must be paid somehow. The disabled veteran must use a nebulizer – a device that administers medication by inhaling mist – and a medical oxygen machine.

If his power bill doesn’t get paid, he said, he knows what would happens.

“The power goes off, my machines go off,” Hinton said. “And if the machines go off, I die.”

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