Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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February 20, 2010

AEP bills: Many seek help from Mission

WAR — In a time of recession, factors beyond one’s control can become a crushing burden. For many households and businesses in the Virginias, one particular burden grew even greater during recent winter storms — the electric bill.

Power bills in the hundreds of dollars are becoming a common problem for consumers in West Virginia and Virginia. One local agency serving those in need on both sides of the state line is seeing both the employed and the unemployed come in and ask for help with huge electric bills.

Director Craig Hammond of the Bluefield Union Mission predicted in January that human service agencies would see a “tsunami,” a tidal wave of people needing utility assistance.

“That prediction came true,” Hammond said. “We’ve just had a heavy flow of people every day for the last month, especially the last two weeks. It really intensified. We’ve actually had a tsunami of people from both sides of the border. In many cases, in most cases, it’s just overwhelming. In a couple of cases, they (bills) exceeded their income, especially on the Virginia side. It seems they had interim rate changes and other charges.”

Hammond doubted that the number of people seeking help would subside.

“I believe we here in the mission and other agencies should brace for this steady stream of people seeking help to continue. It’s here for quite a long time. Wages are not increasing, and most of the people we serve are unemployed or have minimum wage jobs with 30 hours or less. What they make is not even close to keeping up with high energy costs,” he said.

Thousands of people in both Virginias lost electricity after a major winter storm covered the region on Dec. 18, 2009. Many expected lower power bills after days without service, but this prediction did not happen in some cases.

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