Lady claiming electric company for a blackout

POWER DISCONNECTS — Those facing power disconnects are urged to contact their utility company to set up a payment plan.

The months are getting colder, and the moratorium on utility disconnections has expired, meaning people can have their power cut off for nonpayment.

Duke Energy, Haywood EMC and the Town of Waynesville all provide electricity to customers in the county. Representatives of all three providers, along with local nonprofit organizations, have said that while times are tough all around, there may be options.

In an email, Neil Nissan of Duke Energy said that in June of this year, the company announced additional steps to help people who have fallen behind on their bill due to illness or lost wages, including a simplified process for accessing the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and other funds available through community agencies.

Nissan said since Duke gradually began resuming standard billing and payment practices in October, the goal has been to work with customers to enroll in payment plans — including a 12-month plan — that would stave off disconnection and ideally make payment easier.

Ken Thomas of HEMC said in an email that there are also other avenues and mentioned LIHEAP, as well as Project HEMC (the HEMC stands for “Helping Each Member Cope” in this case).

“Our ‘Helping Each Member Cope’ fund is funded by members helping other members in our community by voluntarily choosing to round up their bill each month and the round- up amount is donated to the fund. These funds are then managed by social services and local community action committees to establish eligibility for the program and administer funds for electric payments,” Thomas said.

Town of Waynesville Finance Director Autumn Lyvers said the town’s electrical customers are also encouraged to make a payment arrangement, adding that during September, they had 70 payment arrangements totaling $37,000, some commercial customers, most residential.

While the town was planning on recommencing disconnections last month — as other utility providers began doing — because the Waynesville finance office endured a COVID cluster, that process has been delayed, likely until mid-January.

All the same, plenty of people have been calling in with concerns about future disconnection.

“Our phones are staying pretty busy down here,” Lyvers said. “A lot of people are worried about the cutoff happening again. We try to let people know, ‘hey, we’re still taking payment plans. If you’re behind, we want to set up a payment plan. We want to make this as easy as possible.’”

“Come talk about it,” she added. “That’s my intent. If you’re concerned or you have any questions, just call us and we’ll set up something.”

For those who are struggling, outside solutions are getting harder and harder to come by. While the Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions (HOPE) provided $167 million for North Carolinians facing either eviction or utility disconnection, the high demand for assistance led to the indefinite hold on new applications on Nov. 11.

Nonprofit funds limited

Until that program is refreshed with more federal funds, many will have to turn to local nonprofits, such as Haywood Christian Ministry. Executive Director Steve Nowakowski said he encourages anyone who needs help to come in and talk but admitted that the need lately has been huge amid the pandemic and resulting economic hardship.

“Right now, we’re seeing anywhere from $1,900 to $2,400 electric bills coming in,” he said. “Normally, we would pay $150, but it’s not even the tip of the iceberg there.”

Nowakowski said some clients used stimulus money for other things and put off paying their utilities, but once the moratorium on shutoffs ended, things came to a head fast.

“Right now, a lot of them are just hurting, and there’s no end in sight … some of our clients have not paid their bills since February,” he said.

Mountain Projects Executive Director Patsy Davis said that while times are tight, she also encourages people who believe they need help to speak with them. However, she also recommended that those who might face losing their heat source can reach out to the Department of Social Services to look into LIHEAP.

To enable Mountain Projects to keep after its mission, Davis said she is trying to raise more money.

“We’re really trying to ramp up our fundraising so we can continue to fill those gaps,” she said. “Sometimes we see bills so large we see many nonprofits have to pitch in.”

When asked what she would recommend for someone facing hardship with nowhere to turn, Davis said it likely won’t be easy.

“The sad thing about this is you’d probably have to go down multiple roads,” she said. “You may have to go and make several calls until you find that light.”

Davis finished by saying it’s important that we keep our vulnerable elderly population in mind.

“If you go in a store, you see so many more seniors working,” she said. “I’m starting to see more and more needs in our elderly population. Being retired 10 years ago doesn’t cover costs for today. More and more seniors have fallen into that gap.”

Duke Energy Carolinas customers seeking further options can call 800-777-9898 and Duke Energy Progress customers can call 800-452-7777. Customers can also visit Waynesville customers can call 828-456-3515 and HEMC customers can call 828-452-2281.

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