Natural gas prices are on the rise. Elizabeth Brackett reports from WTTW in Chicago.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Caridad Vasquez needed help. The gas bill to heat her home had tripled from the year before, and she couldn't pay it. She was not alone. Because of the record cold and snow and the record high natural gas prices this winter, several hundred Chicagoans showed up for an event sponsored by Peoples Energy, the company that distributes gas to northeastern Illinois. Desiree Rogers is the gas company's chief marketing officer.
DESIREE ROGERS: This is an extreme year. We understand that there is quite a bit of hardship in terms of what these bills are.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Vasquez was told she qualified for help from the federal low-income home energy assistance program, or LIPEAP. In Illinois, LIHEAP grants are up 41% over last year. Nationwide, the increase is 25%. Congress has had to add $855 million in emergency funds since September. Vasquez fell well within the guidelines, which allow a $25,500 income for a family of four. $440 is the average one-time grant paid directly to the gas company. City worker Vi Hand was taking LIHEAP applications.
VI HAND: Some of the bills that I look at, I can't believe it. I cannot believe it. There's some of them as not just doubled, almost tripled. And you have people's income that's at a minimum and barely making it. You have seniors and people that's on fixed income. You have people that's on disability.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A $926-a-month Social Security disability check is the only source of income for Caridad Vasquez and her 52-year- old husband Salvador. After 23 years as a factory worker, Vasquez lost his legs and much of his vision to diabetes. He's also had three strokes and triple bypass surgery. When the January gas bill for their small house jumped to $500, Caridad Vasquez had to start making some hard choices.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What's more important to you, paying the medicine for your husband or paying the gas bill?
CARIDAD VASQUEZ: (speaking through interpreter) Both things are important. The medicine, because he does need his medicine to survive and keep healthy the way he should. The other thing is where the gas is needed for the heating, for the hot water. He needs all this attention, so both are important.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Can you pay for both?
CARIDAD VASQUEZ: (speaking through interpreter) No.
SPOKESPERSON: And you said your bill was how much last month?
MAN: Last month it was $451.
SPOKESPERSON: And you rent?
MAN: Yes, I do rent.
MAN: The total bill was $1,123.14.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Victor Castro was faced with the same kinds of difficult choices. He had come for help from the gas company's own grant program, Share the Warmth. The program, administered by the Salvation Army, allows a little higher income than the federal program, $34,000 for a family of four. Utilities in several states across the country have funded similar programs.
DESIREE ROGERS: Households that are eligible, they are eligible for $300 toward their energy bill. It is a plan that the company has put $500,000 in this year. We hope to spend, you know, all that money. We match employee and customer donations in that program, and we have about $900,000 in the program right now.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Castro, who shares a home with his elderly mother and disabled sister, has been diagnosed with lung cancer. All three receive Social Security disability checks, bringing the monthly income to about $1,500, not nearly enough, says Castro, to pay the rent, buy food, and pay the heating bill.
VICTOR CASTRO: It's not fair. I mean, if I want to go and get a can of tuna and I don't have it because I had to cut that off from my food list, it's ridiculous. I shouldn't have to starve because the gas company decided to hike the prices, you know.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Just over 200,000 grants have been given out by the gas company and the federal government's heating assistance program since the heating season began in Chicago. But it's just a one-time check, and often doesn't even cover one month's heating bill.
SPOKESPERSON: Could you hold for one second? I'll see if you qualify.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Salvation Army, which has tripled its staff to handle the flood of calls about the gas companies grant, says demand has also increased at their food pantries and homeless shelters, a ripple effect from the high gas bills. Social services director William Fillmore says clients' needs are far from being met.
WILLIAM FILLMORE: Well, I'm particularly concerned for the poor, and also the growing ranks of the working poor, folks who have been making some progress, you know, with welfare reform and so on.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So how would you rate the adequacy of the city and the federal government and the gas companies response to this crisis?
WILLIAM FILLMORE: It's paltry, it's paltry.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So what should be done?
WILLIAM FILLMORE: I think what the city could do certainly is to set aside the tax.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The utility tax.
WILLIAM FILLMORE: The utility tax, I think there's a starter as a place to begin.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the city has its own budget problems, caused by the harsh winter and high gas costs, according to Chicago's Commissioner of the Environment, William Abolt. Instead of dropping the 8% utility tax, Abolt says the city has responded to the crisis in other ways.
WILLIAM ABOLT: Our belief was the best thing to do was to have targeted assistance for the most needy people. So every dollar that doesn't go to pay the city's gas bill above and beyond what was normally budgeted, every single additional dollar is going into targeted assistance.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Abolt admits that the utility tax receipts are way up, because of the higher cost of gas. And for the first time, the city put $250,000 into People's Energy's Share the Warmth grant program. The city's mayor, Richard M. Daley, leaned on the gas company to be more responsive to its customers.
MAYOR RICHARD DALEY: We thought they should have warnings about high gas prices coming up, and also tips to customers. We think they should have done that. We think they should have talked about how to reduce usage during the winter months, insulation, a lot of things that go on.
SPOKESPERSON: Peoples energy, Miss Holt speaking. How can I help you?
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The gas company says it's trying.
PERSON ON PHONE: Okay, if your bill is $687.06 and you can pay at least 10%, although you said you could pay $200, that will leave you owing $487. Okay, we can divide that by 12, so that means you would be paying $41 a month for 12 months.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The company says it's fielding about 13,000 calls a day from customers. There's also a place to sign up for a budget payment plan on the monthly bill. But for many, there is no simple solution. Mary Elizabeth Shober says she's done everything she can think of to keep her bills down. She wears as many clothes inside her two-bedroom apartment as she does on the street, and she's turned the heat down to 62 degrees. She makes too much to qualify for any grants, but the bills are still too high for her to pay.
MARY ELIZABETH SHOBER: This energy crisis is reducing us all to the working poor. In other words, we cannot save for the future. We cannot buy something discretionary. We cannot buy a gift for someone. We can't replace appliances that we need.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The pain is not likely to end soon for Shober or the millions of others across the country struggling with high energy costs. In Chicago, Peoples Energy has promised not to turn anyone's heat off for non-payment until May 1. But it will take many customers years to pay off this winter's bills.