How some utilities help customers meet bills

Your electric utility. In polite dinner conversation it might be referred to as ''Gargantuan,'' or perhaps ''gluttonous?'' This might seem apt - especially after a company has filed for a large rate increase.

But now a very different description is gaining acceptance with some financially hard-pressed consumers across the United States.

The word is ''generous.''

A growing number of electric utility stockholders and employees are coming to the aid of some of their neediest customers who, for reasons such as unemployment, cannot pay their bills. This is in addition to a growing number of communities who have similar programs.

In most cases, this help has taken the form of direct cash payments, administered through third parties such as the Salvation Army or Red Cross. For example, from June 1982 through the end of February, a fund established by the Arkansas Power & Light Company gave $176,836 to 2,548 families needing ''last resort'' assistance to pay their electric bills. The average cash award was $42, with a ceiling of $100 per family.

To date, 15 electric utilities from Maryland to California have launched similar programs.

While some critics see this move as merely a clever public relations ploy, others, including some longtime consumer activists, view it as a ''breakthrough'' in public utility customer relations and maybe even a model for other businesses.

At the moment, however, one thing is certain. Legal protections - ''moratoriums'' - against utility shut-offs are coming to an end in 32 states, many of which prevent terminations for unpaid bills until the arrival of warmer weather.

As many as 300,000 households around the country may lose their utility service this spring when moratoriums on shut-offs expire, says the national Citizen/Labor Energy Coalition. This figure represents a nearly 30 percent increase over shut-offs in 1982.

Thomas Morron, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, an industry association with some 200 public utility members, also predicts that shut-offs will rise substantially above last year's level because of the combined effects of recession and unemployment.

At the same time, Mr. Morron stressed that ''a variety of programs have sprung up in the last year to assist those who are really up against the wall,'' including, but not just limited to, the budding direct monetary assistance from utilities themselves.

Consolidated Edison in New York City, which serves 2.7 million electricity customers, has inaugurated a ''third-party notification'' system, in which relatives or close friends of elderly Con Ed users are called if bills get out of hand. Like many other utilities, Con Ed also has a policy of letting genuinely needy customers pay their high winter heat bills over the summer months.

In what some experts say is a unique move, the Narragansett Electric Company, serving 272,000 Rhode Island ratepayers, has asked that state's Public Utility Commission for permission to offer discounts to customers who have lost their jobs and run out of unemployment benefits. A decision on the request is expected to be handed down in the next several weeks. Narragansett officials explain that the eventual costs of these discounts could be at least partially offset by a projected increase in the number of ratepayers.

''Some utilities have been very good about recognizing the problem of costly energy bills and have tried to address it in a number of new ways,'' notes Glenn Nishimuri, a spokesman for the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, D.C.

The employees of the Arizona Public Service Company, a utility generating electricity in 12 of Arizona's 15 counties, have banded together to raise $50, 000 to help needy customers pay their electric bills. This money is being distributed through the Salvation Army.

Is this slick public relations or a basic change of heart?

''It's a recognition that there are people out there who have run out of other options,'' concludes Peter Klute, a spokesman for Arizona Public Service.

Stockholders are getting into the act as well. Arkansas Power & Light stockholders gave $25,000 seed money for that utility's ''Helping Hand'' program. Employees initially chipped in another $9,000, and, coupled with donations from area businesses and individuals, contributions had grown to $176, 836 by the end of February.

Carol Davis, a spokeswoman for the Little Rock Red Cross, which helps administer some of these funds, says that ''people are beginning to feel this is a worthy project that is working and (is) not just a public relations gimmick.''

But she laments that even the comparatively large amount of money collected so far falls far short of the current need. In fact, Helping Hand has had to terminate its programs to aid those under 60 years old and not handicapped because there is not enough money.

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