For the first winter in four years, residents in all three Washington area jurisdictions -- the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia -- face the risk of having their heat and lights turned off if they are deliquent in paying utility bills.
The stricter cutoff rules come at a time when winter heating bills are expected to rise 4 to 15 percent. This raises the specter of some consumers, particularly the elderly on fixed incomes and the poor, passing the winter in unheated homes, some area officials fears.
Maryland Del. Thomas Mooney (D-Prince George's) appealed yesterday to Gov. Harry Hughes to use the governor's emergency powers to prohibit utility customer cutoffs in the state this winter.
"A real possibility exists that someone could perish if their utility service is disconnected," Mooney said in a letter to Hughes.
A spokesman for Hughes, however, said the state has applied for $5 million in U.S. funds to assist those who are unable to pay their heating bills.
Maryland utilities had been barred by the state's Public Service Commission from turning off service to deliquent home customers during the last three winters. But that prohibition was lifted recently. A new commission order scheduled to take effect Nov. 15 permits utilities to termiante residential users five days after they have received final notices to pay their bills.
The state office of the People's Counsel, which fought to keep the ban, has filed a petition for a rehearing in the case.
In Virginia, utilities traditionally have been permitted to shut off service to delinquent customers 10 days after the fianl notice.
District of Columbia, under the consumer bill of rights implemenfed this summer, allows cutoff 15 days after final notices are received. However, the utilities are prohibited from turning off service when the temperature is 32 degrees or less.
Utility officials contend that cutoff of service occurs no sooner than two to three months after residents receive their first bill for gas or electricity. In addition, the companies say they have policies in some instances against disconnecting customers during extremely cold weather. Washington Gas Light Co., for example, does not turn off service to home users when there is a forecast for temperature to drop to 25 degrees or below, a spokesman said.
In compliance with local jurisdiction requirements, utilities often send several notices to a customer before turning off heat or lights.
The New Maryland order also requires a utility to file an affidavit with the commission at least 24 hours before cutting off a customer. The affidavit must certify that the shutdown "will not constitute a threat to the life or health of the residential occupants."
Utility company representatives said internal billing procedures also delay cutoff, so that someone falling behind the winter might not be subject to service trmination until spring.
"It could be two to three months after the first bill is sent before there would be a cutoff," said Susan Butz, a spokeswoman for WGL.
Utility critics expressed concern that the absence of a government ban on cutoff could lead to serious problems for consumers.
"If I could save one human life from freezing or increase the profit of utility stockholders, I would without hesitation choose the former," said Mooney.
During 1978, all three major gas and electric comapnies serving the metropolitan area turned off service to thousand of residential users who failed to pay their utility bills.
Virginia Electric Power Co. (VEPCO) disconnected more than 100,000 customers that year -- some of them more than one time.
About 7 percent of VEPCO's 1.1 million residential customers were delinquent, a spokesman said. Asked how many dollars in arrerage that represented, the spokesman said VEPCO had no need to know that.
However, he did disclose that in 1978 VEPCO wrote off $2.97 million as uncollectable -- only a small percentage of the $563.6 million in energy sales to residential customers.
The Potomac Electric Power Co., which serves the District of Columbia, most of Suburban Maryland and a small section of Northern Virginia, terminated service to 21,641 delinquent customers last year. That includes 12,154 living in D.C.; 9,438 in Maryland and 49 in Virginia.
Washington Gas Light had the most comprehensivce statistics available on cutoffs. Butz the spokesman, said that her company terminated service to 28,000 accounts representing about $4.8 million in overdue bills last year. She said 16,000 accounts, totaling about $2.3 million, were charged off as uncollectable.
Most WGL disconnections were made during the spring and summer months, according to the company, but several hundred accounts were cut off during January and February.