Energy Adviser: Help available for low-income utility customers

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It's fun to buy toys for needy children around the holidays. But if you are looking for a way to do more, consider a donation to Clark Public Utilities' Operation Warm Heart program, which helps low-income families with the cost of their electric bills.

"Utilities are essential for families -- right up there with food and shelter," said Gretchen Alexander, who supervises the utility's Community Care team, which connects customers with assistance. "We have families choosing food over utilities, but then they have no way to store or cook the food. Or they have a roof over their head, but no way to keep their home warm."

Last winter, Operation Warm Heart distributed $200,000 to about 600 households.

This winter, Alexander expects more households to seek help from Operation Warm Heart, as well as the utility's other assistance programs. The slow economic recovery has left many still struggling.

"We are seeing a lot of families who have never been in this position before," Alexander said.

How to get help

The money for Operation Warm Heart comes from private donors, utility customers and employees, and area businesses. Other programs are also available for utility customers who have trouble covering their bills:

• Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program: This federal program offers qualified households help with their heating bills, although funding has declined over the years. Clark Public Utilities administers the program for all of Clark County, not just electricity customers. In 2009, the utility received $2.9 million to assist families. That amount fell to $2.2 million for last winter, when the utility helped about 4,500 households. This winter, the utility expects to receive $1.3 million from the program.

• Guarantee of Service Plan: Under this plan, qualifying customers' monthly electric bill amount is based on their household income, following federal guidelines. Customers must apply for the program each year.

• Senior Citizen Rate Credit: Customers 62 and older with an annual household income of no more than $24,000 can receive a 50 percent credit on their bills Jan. 1 through April 30.

To see if you are eligible for these programs, contact the utility's customer service department by calling 360-992-3000 or emailing mailbox@clarkpud.com. Trained representatives also can direct people in need to other community resources, even if their problems are unrelated to utility payments. For example, BenefitsCheckUp helps thousands of people each year connect with government programs that can help them pay for prescription drugs, health care, utilities, and other needs.

Customer service representatives at the utility can also help customers better understand their electric bills, develop budgets and set up special payment plans. They are available to help arrange a walk-through energy audit at your home or to help you apply for home weatherization programs.

How to give

If you are feeling fortunate this year, there are several ways to make a tax-deductible contribution to Operation Warm Heart:

• Include a donation with your utility payment and note the donation, or enclose a separate check. Contribution envelopes are currently being distributed in monthly bills.

• Pledge a regular contribution to be included on future bills.

• Stop by any of Clark Public Utilities' customer service locations to drop off a contribution.

Clark Public Utilities customers also can buy gift certificates and make gift payments for a family member or friend. A gift payment in any amount can be directly applied to an individual's utility account. The gift can be anonymous if you choose.Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.