Robert W. Ballenger, a Community Legal Services lawyer, said utilities such as Philadelphia Gas Works and Peco could begin shutting off customers for nonpayment on Monday, although 34,000 applications for LIHEAP are waiting to be processed in Philadelphia and 23,000 more statewide. Philadelphia has by far more LIHEAP clients than any other municipality in the state.
Pennsylvania law prohibits most utilities from terminating low-income customers during the winter, said Michael Froehlich, another lawyer at Community Legal Services. The winter moratorium is set to end Sunday, he said.
Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for the Public Utility Commission, said that the request had been received but that no action had been taken, adding that "the PUC has long been supportive of benefits of the LIHEAP program."
LIHEAP is a federally funded program that helps low-income families that cannot afford their utilities. LIHEAP provides households an average of $268 per year that is credited to their heating bills, Froehlich said. The Department of Public Welfare sends the LIHEAP grants directly to the utility, which are then credited to customers' accounts.
Kocher said the PUC in November sent a letter to electric and natural gas utilities in the state "asking the companies to exercise discretion when they are dealing with customers, especially low-income customers," in terms of shutoffs and referrals to assistance programs.
Asked when the PUC might act on the recommendations by Community Legal Services, Kocher said, "Obviously with April 1 approaching, we have to do it sooner rather than later."
"We would hope that the utilities would remember the direction that we had given them in November," Kocher said.
The law firm's letter urged utilities to postpone shutoffs for nonpayment to any customer known by the utility to have received LIHEAP assistance within the last two years.
It also asked that before any shutoff, utilities contact customers and request information about any pending LIHEAP application.
The letter also urged that utilities provide advance written notice to the PUC if they intend to shut off service to any customer who has received LIHEAP in the last two years and has not received LIHEAP benefits this year or is believed to have a pending LIHEAP application.
Carey Miller, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare, declined to describe the problem as a backlog, saying thousands of applications for LIHEAP were being received this time of year.
She said she could not confirm the numbers reported by Community Legal Services. Miller said "thousands of applications" had not been fully processed as of yesterday.
Froehlich said: "What we're asking is, that if they have a pending LIHEAP application, that they do not have their utilities shut off."
Asked how this year compared with others, Froehlich said, "We have never seen it this bad," adding that there are 57,000 applications that have been pending for at least 30 days.
Contact staff writer Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.