Utilities observe jump in cut-offs

Some Augusta-area residents are being forced to make some tough choices: which utility bill to pay this month.

Water and sewer services are leading the pack for delinquent bills. The city has experienced a 5 percent increase in water and wastewater shut-offs since last year, said Steve Little, the Augusta utility department's assistant director of finance and administration.

"It's difficult for people to pay all of their bills and eventually it gets to the point where they can't keep up," Mr. Little said. "People are being forced into some difficult choices, and it's just getting worse."

There have been 7,000 shut-offs in Augusta and Richmond County for the six-month period ending in June, he said, compared to 6,700 shut-offs for the same period last year. Augusta's utility department has 67,000 customers.

The 5 percent increase in water shut-offs isn't surprising, Mr. Little said, but it could have been worse.

Cathy Hudson, the utility billing coordinator for North Augusta's Department of Public Utilities, said the department cuts off services on a regular basis.

In June and July, 281 properties had services shut-off for being delinquent.

Other utility companies aren't complaining right now, but they haven't hit their peak seasons.

Jeff Wilson, a spokesman for Georgia Power, said electricity bills peak during July and August. Customers haven't yet received their highest bills, so the company must wait to determine the impact.

"We see more of our disconnects in the fall," Mr. Wilson explained. "It's basically flat compared to last year. We haven't seen a spike like other businesses have."

Georgia Natural Gas has peak months from December to February, said Terry Redman, the director of corporate communications.

"We don't really know the impact yet of the economic issues that everyone is dealing with," Ms. Redman said.

The company services 22,000 accounts in Richmond and Columbia counties.

She encourages customers to call before they get into financial problems with their bills.

"We will work with people on payment arrangements. It's difficult for people to pick up the phone and call sometimes," she said.

Not all utility companies are suffering, however.

Abu Khan, the vice president and general manager at Comcast, said the company is benefitting from "bargain shopping."

"In terms of people paying their bills, it's actually getting better," Mr. Khan said. "We are finding that people are promo shopping a lot more."

Customers are opting for their $99 triple-play bundle, which offers cable, high-speed Internet and telephone service. Comcast has seen a rise in its telephone and high-speed Internet customers.

However, consumers are cutting back on premium channels, such as HBO and Showtime, Mr. Khan said.

Reach LaTina Emerson at (706) 823-3227 or latina.emerson@augustachronicle.com.

NEED HELP PAYING YOUR BILL?

- Call the United Way 2-1-1 help line. By dialing 211, callers are referred to agencies who can assist them with their utility bills. If you're calling from a cell phone, call (706) 826-1495.

- South Carolina residents can get help from Community Ministry of North Augusta, a church-based organization that can be reached at (803) 279-5771. Customers can also call Aiken Community Action at (803) 648-6836.

- The North Augusta Department of Public Utilities offers payment plans and billing extensions, and works with customers who have medical needs.

- Georgia Power offers payment arrangements to customers experiencing financial hardships. In partnership with The Salvation Army, the company offers Project Share, which allows customers to pledge a dollar amount to assist people with basic necessities. Georgia Power matches all contributions.

- Georgia Power also offers Budget Billing and Flat Billing, programs that vary slightly and bill a customer the average of the previous 12 months' bills.

Source: Augusta Utilities Department, North Augusta Department of Public Utilities, United Way, Georgia Power