California Crisis boils down to chilly people : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Crisis boils down to chilly people By Dorothy Korber Bee Staff Writer

(Published Feb. 14, 2001)

Swaddled in two sweaters and a blanket, Betty Kitchen sat bolt upright in her recliner and shook a chilled fist. The winter wind whistled outside her tidy mobile home, but the thermostat inside was glued to 60 degrees. "I hate this!" she said. "I hate this whole thing!"

Kitchen's cold hands and hot mood have the same source. Though she qualifies for a low-income discount, her current gas bill is $135 -- almost $100 higher than a year ago. It's an overwhelming increase for a retiree who lives on a Social Security benefit of $750 a month.

So Kitchen shoved down the thermostat in her North Highlands home another 7 degrees. The chill is bad, but she's more worried about the money.

"I can make it this month, barely,

by using up all my reserves," said the former waitress, who is 72. "I don't know what I'll do next month. I'm an independent soul, and I feel like I'm begging -- asking people to do something I ought to be able to do for myself."

By now, most customers of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. know their latest gas bills are humdingers.

"I opened that bill, and I about freaked out," said Kitchen, expressing a sentiment echoing across PG&E territory this month.

What happens if you can't pay your bill? Call PG&E immediately, urged Claudia Mendoza, spokesperson for the utility.

"We want to stress and emphasize, as soon as somebody feels they cannot pay their bill -- they have to call us," she said. "We'll try to work something out on a case-by-case basis."

Otherwise, she said, customers who miss two monthly payments will get a 30-day shut-off warning. That's followed by a 15-day notice, a 48-hour notice and a final call the day of the shut-off.

"We never just show up unannounced," Mendoza said.

January's gas rate included a one-time surcharge for earlier miscalculations, pushing the typical residential bill from an already-elevated $78 in December to $125 last month.

To help low-income customers offset the hike, PG&E is including an application for the CARE program (California Alternate Rates for Energy) with every residential gas bill. CARE participants receive a 15 percent monthly discount on gas and electric rates.

To qualify, household income must be lower than 150 percent of the federal poverty level. That equates to $25,800 annually for a four-person household, $21,500 for households with three members and $18,200 a year for households with one or two members.

On average, CARE participants save $135 annually on their electric bills and $147 annually on gas bills. For information about CARE or bill-paying in general, call PG&E at (800) 743-5000

REACH, another PG&E program for low-income customers, provides a one-time grant of up to $300 to pay a single month's bill. For information on that program, administered through the Salvation Army, call (800) 933-9677.

Kitchen gets the CARE discount, but she said it wasn't easy.

"They say 'Just call PG&E' -- well, you oughta try," she said, raising an eyebrow. "First they tell you: 'Your call is important to us.' Then you punch a dozen numbers, then you wait and wait, then you get disconnected."

The natural gas rate is expected to drop slightly in February, but that's cold comfort for Betty Kitchen.

Divorced for 18 years -- "Happily single, I call it" -- Kitchen is on her own. She likes to sew and cook, but the energy crunch has her bundled up in her chair, squinting by the light of one table lamp and watching television.

"I guess I'll have to give up cable TV," she mused. "I can't even afford basic cable. I've been taping movies so I'll have something to watch."

She's also postponed painting her kitchen cupboards and carpeting her tiny living room.

The 30-year resident of the Lamplighter Mobile Home sighed deeply.

"I never thought I was poor until they started calling me low-income," she said. "But I guess I'll have to take whatever help I can get."

-- Martin Thompson (, February 15, 2001

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