MEXICO – People struggling to make ends meet this winter have gained new protections regarding electric power disconnections.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission, which works with customers to find financial assistance to pay electric and gas bills, has introduced five rule changes this year to help some residents pay their bills.

“I think this is very important, because I know it’s happening out there,” Rep. Sheryl Briggs, D-Mexico, said Thursday. “It’s very important to let everybody know that there are other ways to help them get through this difficult time.”

According to a report from Briggs, the changes include:

• A year-round low income assistance program that provides utility bill discounts or credits to challenged families. Briggs said the fund has $7 million available for assistance.

• An energy crisis intervention program for eligible households that receive disconnection notices and can’t negotiate or honor an existing payment plan.

• Emergency assistance from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services when a disconnection is imminent.

• Eligible customers who rely on life-saving equipment such as oxygen pumps and ventilators at least eight hours a day may qualify for a utility credit to cover the cost of electricity for the equipment.

• Utilities are required to mail or deliver a full information packet explaining consumer rights and options to homes that have lost heat or light service since April 15, 2007.

“So many people are having a hard time making ends meet, and we just keep getting more snow. People need to know that as long as they’re making an effort, they won’t be in the dark,” Briggs said.

PUC rules bar utilities from shutting off power to any customer between Nov. 15 and April 15 without permission from the PUC’s Consumer Assistance Protection Division. Briggs said the PUC will work with customers to find financial assistance to pay electric and gas bills during that period, as well.

“Customers should contact their utility company first and, if not satisfied, call the PUC Consumer Assistance Protection Division for free help,” Briggs said.

Letters from the power company, phone calls and in-person attempts at contact are required before a winter disconnection can happen.

The division has already received 19 complaints this year regarding customers who were threatened with disconnection or were actually disconnected, according to statistics on the PUC Web site. Of those, 10 involved electric utilities, eight involved water districts, and one involved telephone service.

Last year, there were 804 complaints regarding disconnections or threatened disconnects, 286 more than in 2006. The highest amount was 905 in 2000.

Briggs said customers can contact the PUC Consumer Assistance Division at any time at 800-452-4699 to work out a payment schedule with PUC help.

“Things are very, very tough out there and, by the looks of (the state) budget shortfall, it’s unbelievable what we have to do. It’s humanely just awful, but I will do the best I can and go to bat for my constituents … That’s why I’m trying to get messages like this out there,” Briggs said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.