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More options, protections against heat shutoffs this winter – but no guarantees

Michigan customers who struggle to pay heating bills have some additional legal protections from heat shutoffs this winter.

But with the ongoing brutal cold, this will prove a painful winter for people already struggling to pay utility bills. And some households still face the very real prospect of going without heat.

In 2013, the state implemented a variety of new rules outlining how and when utilities can shut off service to residential customers.

Some utilities including the state’s largest, Detroit-based DTE Energy – have also begun offering income-based, fixed-rate, year-round payment plans to eligible low-income customers.

“The whole thought is to get the customer on the program, give them a low monthly fixed budget that doesn’t change, and then begin to help them make their payments,” said Michelle Bates, manager of DTE’s advocacy group for low-income programs.

“We take their arrears and we hold them – and then we give them a low (monthly) budget to manage.”

Bates said 28,000 DTE customers are on the plan this year. Enrollment closed in December.

Susan Sherer, CEO of the statewide non-profit The Heat and Warmth Fund (THAW), said those income-based payment plans are helping lot of people avoid dire situations this winter.

“It has helped a lot, because you have a fixed rate,” Sherer said. “You don’t need a shutoff (notice), so you can get help earlier.”

But Sherer added, “The challenge for us won’t be today. It’s going to be 45 and 60 days later when these bills come due, and they’re more than what a customer on a very limited income can expect.”

Dave Akerly, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Human Services, agreed that many people will be hit hardest come springtime.

“We know that the residual of this will keep coming, even as the temperatures warm up,” Akerly said. “This is going to be a high-cost winter, no question.”

For households facing immediate shutoff, Akerly said there is the state Emergency Relief Fund, which can assist with bills up to $450 a year for most customers.

But in a crisis situation, Akerly said customers should contact their utility to see if they qualify for a winter protection payment plan, and call the state 211 helpline to get linked with assistance.

Some Michigan utilities have agreed not to shut off heat to residential customers at all during the winter months.

Others agreed to additional protections – but will still shut off service to some delinquent households. Only the elderly are completely protected.

Utility shutoffs have jumped in Michigan over the past decade as the economy slumped.

In that time, there have been some high-profile deaths linked to a lack of heat service – with the elderly, children, and handicapped proving most vulnerable.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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