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Cooling assistance money already gone | News

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Cooling assistance money already gone
Cooling assistance money already gone

ATLANTA -- Long lines are growing all over the United States as struggling families wait for utility assistance to help pay high power bills.

There are no such lines in Metro Atlanta. That's because the money is already gone.

You might remember long lines throughout the region this past winter for LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) money. Now that air conditioning bills are high, The Georgia Department of Human Services says they don't have any of that federal money left. DHS spokeswoman Ravae Graham tells 11Alive News there has not been HEAP money available for cooling assistance since 2007.

DHS partners with 19 community action agencies to administer the utility assistance. Now that the money is gone for this fiscal year, other non-profits are overwhelmed with requests for help. 

The Metro Atlanta Salvation Army says they're limited by how much money comes into their program. Their energy assistance program is funded the donation box customers check on their bills. The Salvation Army says fewer people have been checking those boxes since the recession started.

United Way's 211 is still referring people to their database of community help, but they're getting reports back that fewer of those groups are able to help. United Ways director of media and marketing services, David Graves, says utility assistance is the highest area of help requested, and it's nearly doubled in recent years. In the 2009-2010 fiscal year, United Way's 211 hotline took 400,000 phone calls for help. About 65,000 of those were asking for help paying electric bills. That's up from 49,000 requests for electric bill help the year before.

With utility assistance money drying up, consumer group Georgia Watch says there are a couple of other options. Clare McGuire is in charge of their Energy department. The group advocates on behalf of small business and consumers in front of the Public Service Commission (PSC).

McGuire says if you've received high utility bills and are unable to pay, ask for a payment plan. Most utility companies will agree to this at least once. "Just like everyone else, they want to get paid," McGuire said.

She also suggests you call the Public Service Commission's Consumer Affairs at (800) 282-5813 or (404) 656-4501. The PSC oversees companies like Georgia Power and can help mediate a solution.

McGuire reminds people to consider budget billing. "It helps customers 'smooth out' their bill over the course of a year," she said. She warns people against joining the Flat Bill program since it includes an "adder" or "markup" and can end up costing consumers more over several years.

The PSC put in place a rule that prevents Georgia Power from disconnecting during times of extreme temperatures. (The PSC does not oversee the EMCs in the state.) But Georgia Watch warns customers should not depend on that safety net since the rule depends on a heat advisory from the National Weather Service. Not all hot days meet the standards to activate the rule.