Clarion Ledger (Mississippi), August 3, 2008: Providing power: Agencies work to keep needy’s lights on

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Marquita Brown

Elizabeth Head’s husband, John, grew seriously ill almost two years ago. Then the couple’s bad fortune continued.

With no income – 55-year-old John Head, who was suffering from strokes and seizures, couldn’t work. They got behind on some bills. Earlier this year their electricity was disconnected.

“It’s been a real struggle for us,” said Elizabeth Head, who is 60. “We just didn’t know where to turn.”

John Head eventually sought help from the Madison County Citizens Service Agency, one of many agencies across the state that provides energy assistance. Among other things, the agency helped the couple get their electricity reconnected.

Like the Heads, a growing number of Mississippians are having difficulty paying their utility bills, according to area nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Those agencies and nonprofits are seeing an increase in the number of applications for energy assistance.

The largest assistance program is the federally sponsored Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. Each year, about $2.1 billion is distributed across the United States to help the elderly, disabled and single-parent households with children younger than 6. The U.S. Senate nixed a provision that would have doubled LIHEAP funding to $5.1 billion.

Mississippi should receive an estimated $15.7 million in LIHEAP funds this year – 14.6 million in regular block funds and $1.1 million in emergency contingency funds, Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, said in an e-mail.

The most recent count of Mississippi’s LIHEAP fund recipients was done in the 2006 fiscal year, according to the LIHEAP Web site. That year, aid went to 61,750 households for heating and 34,300 households for cooling. The average amount of heating and cooling benefits that year were $250.

Consumers will continue to be squeezed and forced to make spending choices, said Lance Nail. dean of the business school at the University of Southern Mississippi.

“Indirect costs such as rising heating costs and transportation expenses will also cause the costs of other goods and services to increase, further depressing the spending power of the average consumer,” Nail said.

Salaries have not kept pace with the rising cost of living, leaving Americans seeing a larger percentage of their incomes going towards essentials such as gas and electricity bills, Nail said.

“This is why you are seeing troubles at Starbucks right now, Nail said. “Two lattes a week over the course of the year is over $400, which can be easily given up as a mini luxury to defray the rising cost of fuel.”

So far this year, the Hinds County Human Resource Agency has spent about $50,000 more LIHEAP funds than in previous months, said Robert Morton, vice president of community programs and services. Each month, the agency doles out about $120,000, he said.

Agencies in Madison and Rankin counties also have seen an increase in people seeking assistance. Officials said spikes historically correspond to peaks in weather.

“But it seems to be a little more than it normally is,” said Mark Dearman, executive director of the Rankin County Human Resource Agency.

The Madison County Citizens Service Agency, which began operating in 2007, said most of the clients they’ve seen have been elderly, though a growing number of people who have lost their jobs also have sought help from the agency, executive director Barbara Gray said.

Electric rates rising

It’s not yet clear how a recent increase in the fuel rate adjustment by Entergy Mississippi will affect residents’ ability to pay their electricity bills. From July 1 through September, the average customer can expect his bill to climb about 28 percent, the company said.

Mississippi Power, which serves 23 counties in the southeastern part of the state, increased its rates by 4 percent in January.

Both utility companies have a number of programs to help customers pay their electricity bills.

The Salvation Army administers Power to Care, a program in which Entergy customers allocate money for others who can’t pay their bills. The organization has seen higher demand for energy assistance programs in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, said Mark Jones, a spokesman for the Salvation Army in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

The Power to Care fund usually receives about $12,000 in contributions monthly but saw a significant boost in June, when $16,500 was donated, said Checky Herrington, a spokesman for Entergy Mississippi. Entergy Mississippi stockholders match donations dollar-for-dollar, he said. The utility is also discussing ways to expand its programs.

The American Red Cross administers Project Share for Mississippi Power customers. The program on average receives about $85,000, Mississippi Power spokeswoman Cindy Duvall said.

Among its other energy assistance programs, Mississippi Power has another partnership with American Red Cross-Mississippi Power through which about $50,000 is given to the company’s customers.

Disconnection down

Entergy and Mississippi Power work with customers to avoid disconnections, Herrington and Duvall said. The number of Entergy Mississippi customers whose electricity was disconnected has gone down over the past three years, Herrington said. The company disconnected 7,698 customers compared to 8,833 customers two years prior.

Mississippi Power has disconnected 5,923 customers through June, down from 5,932 for the same period in 2007.

Carrie Davis of Raymond is in the midst of applying for assistance through LIHEAP. The 74-year-old’s only income is her Social Security check. The agency is taking steps to not only pay Davis’ electricity bill but also give her an air conditioner. She said the one she has barely cools a room.

“That means the world to me, to get any kind of help,” Davis said.

The Madison County Citizens Service Agency “was God’s blessing to us,” Elizabeth Head said.

The agency helped Elizabeth and John Head get their lights back on, among other things. Elizabeth Head now works part time at the agency, a job she got through a program for adults over 50.

When potential clients call the Madison County Citizens Service Agency for help and talk to Elizabeth Head, “she genuinely understands what they’re going through,” Gray said. “Until you’ve been through it, you don’t understand it.”


Hinds County HRA

258 Maddox Road, Jackson

(601) 923-3930 or

(601) 923-3950

Madison County HRA

3141 S. Liberty St., Canton

(601) 859-5703 or


Rankin Co. HRA

1545 W. Government St., Suite C,


(601) 825-1309

Madison County Citizens

Service Agency

WIN Job Center

152 Watford Parkway, Canton

(601) 407-1054

Power to Care

Salvation Army

4150 Riverside Drive, Jackson

(601) 982-4881

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