Ameren Illinois utilities begin shut-offs

Anita Szoke

The Peoria mother of three thought she had a handle on her bills.

But after spending a winter in a poorly insulated home, her electric bills surged, $600 one month, $800 the next. She said her husband’s paycheck wasn’t enough to cover everything. Last week, the family found themselves in the dark as a representative from AmerenCILCO disconnected their service because they owed nearly $2,000 in past due bills.

"I feel like I’m in a twilight zone, I don’t know what to do," she said.

Officials from community outreach groups and Ameren say it doesn’t have to go that far. There’s help for those struggling with their energy bills, but the key is to get the help before your power is turned off.

Once your service is disconnected, you must pay the full amount you owe before your service can be restored, said Neal Johnson, spokesman for Ameren Illinois utilities.

"Disconnection is the very last thing we want to do," Johnson said, urging customers struggling with their bills to call the utility to make payment arrangements or seek assistance from a local Community Action Agency.

Advocates for Access, a not-for-profit group that helps those with disabilities, is hosting a Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program sign-up event Wednesday to help low-income individuals with disabilities pay for winter energy services. LIHEAP will provide a one-time benefit to eligible low-income people with disabilities to be used for energy bills.

"We do get a huge response," said Tiffany Denniston, office manager at Advocates for Access. The response may increase now that Ameren’s Illinois utilities have begun disconnecting nonpaying residential customers, she said.

Other low-income people struggling with their energy bills can sign up for LIHEAP in November. Members of Peoria’s Community Action Agency also will be on hand at Wednesday’s event, making appointments for Nov. 2 for low-income individuals to sign up for LIHEAP.

PCCEO has helped nearly 1,600 households with their energy bills in Peoria County since Sept. 1. Calls for help have been about the same as in previous years, said Tisha Burnside of PCCEO.

In Tazewell and Woodford counties, calls for assistance "weren’t as bad as I thought it would be," said Cindy Bergstrand, director of Tazwood Community Services Inc., which helps those in Tazewell and Woodford counties.

She said she won’t know if there’s an increase in pleas for assistance until November, when low-income people who aren’t disabled or elderly can sign up for LIHEAP.

Earlier this month, Ameren Illinois utilities started disconnecting service for delinquent customers, after its "self-imposed moratorium" ended.

Johnson declined to reveal the actual number of customers being disconnected or have been disconnected. Also, utilities are not required to give that number to the Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates utilities.

Ameren’s Illinois utilities have not disconnected residential electric customers since January, as the utility held off while it negotiated with Illinois lawmakers about how to handle the spike in electric rates.

After hammering out a $1 billion rate-relief rebate plan with legislators, the utility wanted to wait for those checks or credits to go through customers’ accounts before beginning shutoffs.

Service shutoffs for nonpayment usually begin April 1, and the utility normally doesn’t shut off service for nonpayment during the winter, Dec. 1 through March 31.

Anita Szoke can be reached at (309) 686-3248 or aszoke@pjstar.com.