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Utility Shut-Off Notices Surging

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By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2009

Utilities across the Washington region have sent out millions of notices to customers who have fallen behind on their gas and electric bills in the past year and are increasingly shutting off service as residents find that they cannot pay rising heating costs.

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In Maryland, alarmed regulators ordered utility officials to appear at a hearing yesterday to explain what's going on.

A state program funded by ratepayers and designed to give one-time, crisis assistance to low-income customers ran out of money early last year, and state officials put in $27 million in tax revenue to meet the need. Maryland taxpayers are on track to contribute an additional $90 million this year.

"Our doors are busting," said Brian L. Wilbon, deputy secretary for operations in the Department of Human Resources, which runs the program.

Recent data the utilities provided to regulators show that Baltimore Gas and Electric issued 1.9 million shut-off notices in 2008; Washington Gas issued 472,586; and Pepco, 426,202.

In the most detailed analysis, Maryland's Public Service Commission found late last year that late bills, known as arrearages, and shut-offs, called terminations, began exploding in 2006.

From October 2006 to September 2008, shut-offs jumped 23 percent across the state, and arrearages were up 44 percent. The average sum in arrears rose from $250 to $340.

The increases coincided with a 72 percent rate increase by BGE after the lifting of rate caps imposed at the time of deregulation.

In Virginia, Dominion Virginia Power cited higher fuel costs when it raised rates 18 percent last year; the utility shut-off service to 93,890 customers for nonpayment, a 15 percent jump from 2007.

In the District, one fourth of Pepco's customers who rely on electricity for heat were in arrears in 2008, the data show.

It's not just low-income customers who cannot pay. Interviews and data submitted to regulators in Maryland and the District show that some customers whose income is too high to qualify for assistance are also in danger of shut-offs.

Many Maryland customers are reporting that their January energy bills doubled in a month, said Douglas Nazarian, chairman of the Public Service Commission. Of particular concern are tens of thousands of Pepco, Washington Gas and BGE customers who could lose service April 1, when a winter restriction on shut-offs ends.

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