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Thousands of Iowans facing utility shutoff despite mild winter

Steve Gravelle, CR Gazette –

About 224,000 Iowa households are behind on their utility bills despite the mild winter.

“One would expect starting April 1 we could see record numbers of households getting disconnected,” said Jerry McKim, chief of the energy assistance bureau at the Iowa Department of the Human Rights.

The state’s November-April winter utility shut-off moratorium ends April 1.

Regulated utilities reported 224,016 delinquent residential accounts statewide at the end of February, about 12.25 percent of total customers. They owed a total of $32,997,587.

That’s down from nearly 240,000 households owing $38.9 million last February, but McKim said cuts in federal heating aid to low-income households have been deeper than any savings from the mild winter.

“The bills are lower, but as far as the people we serve the bills haven’t been reduced enough,” said McKim. “The benefit is 25 percent less than last year, but the bill is not 25 percent less.”

There were 81,610 households enrolled in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) at the end of last month, McKim said, slightly less than last year. Congress and the Obama administration reduced LIHEAP funding from $4.7 billion last year to $3.5 billion.

McKim said it could’ve been worse: Congress restored an additional $1.2 billion cut proposed by the president, allowing the state to boost its initial payment.

“We’re in the process now of making a supplemental payment to everybody who applied,” he said. “The good news is, people will be getting a small additional credit applied to their account.”

In recent years, about 15,000 households lost utility service in the three months after the moratorium’s end, McKim said.

Regulated utilities – not including municipally-owned utilities or rural cooperatives – issued 83,323 disconnect notices last month. Alliant Energy has 71,323 delinquent customers statewide, according to company spokesman Justin Foss.

LIHEAP is available to households with incomes up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level – $33,525 for a family of four. The benefit is calculated on a points system based on income, household size, and other factors. The average LIHEAP household in Iowa received a $425 benefit this year, applied directly to the recipient’s utility account.

The program will take new applications through April 30. Hiawatha-based Hawkeye Area Community Action Program manages LIHEAP in Benton, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn and Washington counties.

Both McKim and utilities urge Iowans who are behind on their bills to make payment arrangements before April 1. Customers should call their utility provider, and Iowa Utility Board’s customer service line (877-565-4450) if they have questions about their rights.

“People have a legal right to a reasonable, affordable agreement,” McKim said. “Don’t agree to something you can’t afford.”

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