WAUSAU (AP) - Wisconsin's electricity and natural gas providers reportedMonday that more customers are behind in paying their bills than ayear ago and they owe more money - in some cases significantly moremoney.
Green Bay-based Wisconsin Public Service Co., which can begindisconnecting service April 16 because a winter moratorium ends,attributed the trend to the sagging economy, more home foreclosuresand more bankruptcies.
About 71,000 of the utility's 500,000 customers are behind intheir payments, up 13 percent from a year ago, and they owe morethan $30 million, up 20 percent, said Steve Fifrick, corporatecredit administrator.
Up to half of the delinquent customers are at "immediate risk"of losing service, he said.
Customers behind in their bills can lose service unless they paythe minimum amount noted on their bill or make other paymentarrangements, the utility said.
"Customers seem to be a little reluctant to make a commitment onpayments," Fifrick said in a telephone interview from Green Bay."They are not sure if it is the best use of their money."
The number of bankruptcies involving WPS customers is up 18percent from a year ago, and there's no evidence that trend isslowing, he said.
"The good news is the government has come through with asubstantial amount of energy assistance," Fifrick said. "Thosefunds are up significantly from last year. We are encouragingcustomers to go to local social service agencies to sign up."
WPS said it disconnected service to more than 12,000 customersbetween April and November last year and expects what it called"similar activity" this year.
Timothy Le Monds, a spokesman for the state Public ServiceCommission in Madison, said calls to the agency by consumers withunpaid utility bills are expected to grow 15 percent from a yearago because of the economy. Last year, the PSC received 1,400 callsfrom consumers who were in trouble paying their utility bills.
Some low-income families may qualify for heating aid, hesaid.
Milwaukee-based WE Energies, Wisconsin's largest utility, said61,000 customers are seriously behind in their bills and another41,000 have arranged payment agreements to help avoid havingservice cut off.
As of late February, customers owed We Energy $126.5 millionthat was at least two months in arrears, or $12 million more than ayear ago, spokeswoman Irissol Arce said.
"We definitely understand the economic troubles," she said.
WE Energies, which has more than 1 million electric and naturalgas customers in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, disconnected serviceto 60,000 of them last year because of unpaid bills.
Xcel Energy, which serves 246,000 electric and 101,000 naturalgas customers in western and northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan,said 6 percent of its customers were behind in paying their bills,about the same as a year ago.
The total amount owed was 10 percent higher, spokeswoman LizWolf Green said from Eau Claire.
Madison-based Alliant Energy had 39,500 customers who were 60days or more behind in their bills, nearly 3,400 more than a yearago, spokesman Steve Schultz said. They owed $14.3 million, upnearly $2 million from a year ago.
The figures are not alarming, he said. "They tell us in thecurrent environment and economic situation, people are havingtrouble paying their bills. We understand that."
His company does not release figures on the number of customerswho had service discontinued last year, Schultz said.
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