Help to brave the cold

Marie Armstrong of Austin Utilities checks a meter along 12th Avenue SW Tuesday afternoon. Recent cold temperatures will push heating bills higher and could make payements for some difficult. Eric Johnson/

Statute, Utilities help Austin residents avoid weather

Following a subzero dip in temperatures and days of dangerous wind chills, Austin residents have heating costs on the mind.

Rates tend to put the highest strain on consumers during the winter months, and it’s not unusual for Austin residents to face difficulties making payments, said Sherry Lunt, customer service supervisor with Austin Utilities.

“This time of the year, it’s very typical,” Lunt said. “The first thing we suggest always is to contact Semcac.”

The Rushford-based agency fights poverty and helps people make their payments.

“They give grants according to people’s income, how many are in the household,” Lunt said.

Semcac connects those having trouble funding their utilities to financial assistance and weatherization programs, such as the Energy Assistance Program administered by the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

From there, Austin Utilities follows the state’s Cold Weather Rule, which is designed to protect consumers from having their heating sources cut off between Oct. 15 and April 15. The statute says Utilities cannot disconnect a home’s primary heating source if:

—The inhabitants’ collective income is at or below 50 percent of the state’s median for a household that size. A household of two, for example, can have no greater an income than $29,097.

—The customer makes reasonably timely payments under a payment agreement that considers his or her financial resources.

—The customer receives referrals to energy assistance, weatherization, conservation or other programs that can reduce energy bills.

When customers are subject to having their utilities disconnected, Utilities has to first give notice, an explanation of the customer’s rights and responsibilities, and a list of energy assistance providers. Along with that, Utilities provide a form that lets customers declare an inability to pay, and a statement of different payment plans.

In most cases, customers cannot be disconnected on a Friday, a weekend, a holiday or day before a holiday, or a day when the Utilities offices are closed. Customers can only be disconnected during business hours. Disconnections need to wait 15 days after notice has been personally delivered to a customer, or 20 days after it has been mailed.

Lunt said Austin Utilities always makes shutting off services a last resort.

“Our goal is definitely not to shut people off, but to work with them,” she said. “If there’s no response, we will typically go out and disconnect.”

Last year’s early spring helped ease the burden on Utilities customers, but Lunt said the recent subzero temperatures make her doubt this year’s winter will fade away so quickly.

“This does a little extra damage to the pocketbook,” she said.

It is common for residents to use more electricity during the holidays, both to accommodate guests as well as for Christmas lights. Those expenses come through on the January bill.

While costs will increase this time of year, Lunt said one of the best strategies is for people to be aware of their own consumption. Good insulation, putting on an extra layer of clothing or even making sure not to leave the lights on can cut back on energy costs.

“People don’t realize how much control they have in their own utilities,” she said.

Tips from the meter reader:

—Call 433-8886 if meter smells of gas
—Keep a clear path to the gas meter
—Clear snow from meters to ensure the regulator can breathe
—Remove icicles above meters so they do not cause damage
—Keep foliage trimmed in front of meters

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