Bankole: Answering the call for heat, gas help

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

A most telling signal of Detroit’s comeback will be the absence of headlines about the increasing number of city residents struggling to meet their electric, gas and water bills.

But there are too many stories like that of Angela V. Williams. A single mother with four young children on Detroit’s west side, her family is among the many in the city who are dealing with trying to keep the lights on in her home. Williams, 45, says she was paying more than $200 per month recently for an uncompromising electric bill until a friend told her about an energy affordability plan provided by DTE Energy.

In July, she enrolled in the utility’s Low Income Self-Sufficiency Plan, a program that allows qualified customers to make monthly payments based on their income and monthly energy usage. The remaining portion of the bill is paid with energy assistance funds.

Among the benefits of the plan is that once enrolled, customers’ outstanding bills are frozen and can be reduced if payments are made in a timely fashion. Program participants also are protected from shut off throughout their duration on the plan.

“I was paying between $225 to $285 per month. But now that I’m on the plan, I’m only paying $135 every month,” Williams said. “This lets me put money towards other stuff that my kids may need.”

Another DTE program, the Shutoff Protection Plan, has been established to help qualified customers pay off overdue balances by dividing the bill into portions that are added to future bills.

Robert Blackwell, 62, a retired retail salesman who lives on the west side said he and his family have been on the shut-off plan for almost three years now.

“The program is good. No family with children should live in a house without light,” Blackwell said. “We kept paying and finally got our bill down. My only issue is that a lot of people with smaller income may find it difficult to pay, especially if you are only making $500 every two weeks.”

Maureen Taylor, the director of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, knows the issue all too well having been on the front lines for years pushing affordability issues in Detroit.

The no-nonsense activist applauds officials at DTE Energy, specifically Jerry Norcia, the company’s president and chief operating officer, for stepping up with programs to help indigent families.

“We’ve protested for years against DTE shutoffs. But things changed significantly when Mr. Norcia came on board,” Taylor said of the business leader who first joined DTE in 2002 and served in various leadership roles before being named president and chief operating officer in April. “He walked over to our welfare rights office several times to ask how can he help us.

“He and I have gone to lunch several times because he listens to what we have to say and talks about how we can work together to help those in need in this city.”

More than 35,000 regional customers are enrolled in the affordability plan for 2015-2016, according to DTE, with about 19,000 living in the city. Another 28,000 city residents are enrolled in the shutoff protection plan and DTE officials have asked state officials for additional state funding to be able to enroll more than 45,000 customers in the coming fiscal year.

“At DTE, we pride ourselves on being a force for growth in the communities where we live and serve. We want to ensure that all of our customers have access to safe and reliable energy,” Norcia explained. “Talking to our customers, we recognize that many of them have been hit hard by the economy the past few years, and they’re struggling to put food on the table, let alone pay their energy bills.

“As a child, I would visit and stay with family members who did not have electricity or heat in their homes. It has since been a personal passion of mine to work with those with the least amount of resources and try to connect them to energy in a dignified way.”

Norcia admitted it’s been a tough year for families trying to meet energy costs.

“We recognize that this year in particular, with the extreme record-breaking temperatures, this summer has placed an extra burden on many of our customers. That’s why we’re investing extra resources and putting plans in place to allow us to enroll additional customers on our Low Income Self-Sufficiency Plan program,” Norcia said.

Detroit’s Heat and Warmth Fund is another effort within the city helping low-income residents with utility challenges, and DTE last month donated $2.5million to help the fund prepare for the winter season.

While Taylor says DTE is making an impact with its affordability plan, she wants the utility to go beyond that.

“The problem is people are going in and out of income when they get laid off. DTE should have a structured program with set aside funds to provide employment training for low income families. I’ve had this conversation with DTE chairman Gerard Anderson, who is a very decent guy,” Taylor said.

For Norcia help remains a priority.

“In order for the community to grow and prosper we need to make sure that we are helping our customers in need get back on their feet.”

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910 AM Wednesdays and Fridays. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.

Energy Affordability

Plan Application

Application for DTE’s Low Income Self-Sufficiency Plan (LSP) opens Oct. 1 and the following agencies are enrolling customers:

The Heat and Warmth Fund (THAW)

535 Griswold, Suite 200, Detroit, 48226

(877) 410-0612 (Mon.-Fri., 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.)

United Way of Southeastern Michigan

LSP535 Griswold, Suite 111-610

Detroit, 48226

(844) 598-7967 (Mon.- Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.)

■DTE Energy’s Shutoff Protection Plan is also enrolling low-income customers. Contact DTE Energy at (800) 477-4747, for assistance or (877) 687-5499 to pre-register for Customer Assistance Day events.