Utilities help poor, elderly pay for electricity

With energy prices rising and federal help for the poor dropping, some electric utilities are asking their customers to donate money to help the poor, elderly, and handicapped pay their energy bills.

The Kansas Gas & Electric Company apparently was the first to come up with the idea. Its plan allows customers to contribute to a fund, administered by the Red Cross, that helps some people pay bills on an emergency basis.

''We came up with the idea after the Reagan administration cut back on federal programs that helped poor, elderly people meet their bills,'' says Kansas Gas & Electric spokesman Bob Moore. ''What would happen to those people?''

The program, ''Project Deserve,'' began with a contribution of $25,000 from company shareholders. Employees and other companies added $24,000 to that.

Kansas Gas & Electric then called on its customers to make voluntary donations, and eventually set up a method for them to make regular contributions when they pay their monthly electric bills.

In nearly a year, ''Project Deserve'' has raised $165,000, and more than 2, 000 customers have signed up to contribute on a regular basis, Mr. Moore says. Their contributions average $5 a month, but some people contribute as much as $ 25. About 11 percent of its customers have contributed at least once, he adds. So far $89,000 has been given out to 838 families.

News of the idea has prompted other groups and social-service organizations to request information about how Kansas Gas & Electric set up its program, he says.

Among those was the Tampa Electric Company, which announced a similar plan Jan. 27, and said its shareholders were donating $50,000 to get it started.

Electric rates are rising rapidly in Florida because fast population growth is forcing utilities to build new power plants.

Tampa Electric will distribute the money through the Salvation Army. The fund is not limited to electric bills, but is also available for fuel oil and natural gas bills or for repairs to heaters and air conditioners.

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