washingtonpost.com > Business > Local Business

Utility Begins Cutting Off Power in Winter

By Michael Tunison
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006

Policy changes at Southern Maryland's main electric utility mean that area residents who fail to pay their bills can have their power cut off during winter's cold months.

So far this winter, the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative has terminated service to 83 households as a result of nonpayment.

SMECO's former policy, which was in force for 24 years, barred power shutoffs for delinquent bills from Nov. 1 through March. The new approach actually brings SMECO into line with other utilities in the Washington region, said Tom Dennison, spokesman for the Southern Maryland cooperative. The policy change, announced at the end of 2005, is being implemented for the first time this winter.

"In the past, we had members who wouldn't pay their bills for October, November, December, January, February and March," Dennison said. "They would wait until their tax refunds came to pay their total bill. This would create logjams for SMECO, as well as the community organizations that help people pay their bills."

According to SMECO's Customer Rights and Responsibilities booklet: "Bills are due when issued and are past due after 20 days. When payment has not been received by the time the next month's bill is issued, the past due amount will be printed on the current bill along with a message stating that service is subject to being turned off. A separate Notice of Termination is printed and mailed on any bill having a past due amount. The notice informs the customer that service may be turned off after 14 days unless the past due amount is paid."

In accordance with state law, SMECO, like Pepco and Baltimore Gas and Electric, does not cut power to a home if the forecast for the following day calls for temperatures below 32 degrees. SMECO also offers 30-day extensions on power terminations for households with occupants who are 65 or older, seriously ill or dependent on life-support equipment.

SMECO refers customers with financial difficulty to grant programs, such as the Maryland Energy Assistance Program and the Electric Universal Service Program within the state Public Service Commission.

SMECO also participates in the Project Match program and has pledged to match donations up to $50,000. The program assists residents who are unable to pay their oil, gas or electric heating bills through April 15.

The power cutoff issue was raised this month at a meeting of the Western Charles County Community Association. Residents in the Nanjemoy area were seeking guidance on what to do when power is cut off to one customer whose service may supply power to multiple families living in different structures on one property.

"Families have to be able to utilize their property," said Terawana Keys-Bowman, the president of the western Charles group. Keys-Bowman would like SMECO to install separate meters on such secondary dwellings, so each unit can be responsible for its electricity use.

"In some areas," she said, "you have houses running extension cords to three or four trailers on their property. When the power company cuts the power, in some cases you're talking about more than 20 people without power."

SMECO is reluctant to install meters in many cases because the secondary dwellings do not comply with zoning and housing rules. That has prompted Keys-Bowman to send a written request to the Charles County commissioners to allow more lenient land-use policies in low-income and rural areas.

Power interruptions for any reason can have a secondary impact on rural residents not shared by those who live in more densely populated areas.

"As someone who lives in the country with a well and not on public water, I know that when there's no electricity, your water pump won't work," said Nanjemoy resident Kay Shank.

Area social service agencies are gearing up to meet the potential increase in demand for help with utility bills.

"The rough part of the new policy is that there's such a backlog in getting help," said Sandra Washington, executive director of Lifestyles Inc., a nonprofit organization that performs social work throughout Southern Maryland. "It has pretty much wiped out any funds we had for assisting needy people with utility costs. Ask any community agency and they will tell you they are wiped out. We've tried to pool our resources but you can't pool nothing."

To increase the chances of getting timely aid, Washington said, customers should contact community organizations or the Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Committee as soon as they receive a notice of termination.

"If a family comes after the power has already been cut, they are responsible for the full bill, not only the past due amount. Then there's also the matter of the reconnection cost," Washington said. "I recently had a mother of four come in, and we had a difficult time helping her because her power was already cut off."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company