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SHERIDAN — Effective in March, customers will see increases from Montana-Dakota Utilities for their electricity usage. MDU provides electrical and gas services to approximately 16,000 residents in Sheridan County. After negotiations with the Sheridan City Council last year, the utility provider went before the Wyoming Public Service Commission earlier this month to request a rate increase. The request included recovery of $22 million in investments in the Sheridan area that included a new substation and additional transmission lines.
“For a consumer, the numbers translate to an approximate $7.50 per month to the residential customer, slightly less than 10% on average,” said Bryce Freeman, administrator at the Office of Consumer Affairs in Cheyenne. The OCA advocates on the behalf of consumers on issues related to utility rate increases (see Center Stage column on this page).
But some senior residents on fixed incomes — some receiving less than $400 per month — will be hit the hardest by the increase. Seniors received a $2 to $3 per month raise in social security payments that was taken by increases in Medicare costs for those under that insurance coverage.
Hopefully warmer weather can come with March and give households time to adjust. And there are resources and strategies to help offset the increase for low income households.
One resource is the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program. LIEAP provides assistance for the primary heating source for qualifying households. Gwen Burgess, Outreach Coordinator at the Sheridan Senior Center, is a contact for the community and helps with the LIEAP application for those who don’t want to download the forms and apply directly. Burgess is assisted by volunteer Pam Stevenson.
The downside is the deadline for LIEAP applications for the current year is February 28, 2017, so time is short. The LIEAP staff are currently working through 7,000 applications throughout Wyoming.
“It can take four weeks before they can process your application,” Burgess said. LIEAP will inform you if you have been accepted or denied by letter.
The key to moving the process along is to provide complete documentation and to follow up by calling the LIEAP office to be sure they have everything they need. LIEAP will not call applicants if documentation is missing. Being declined may only be due to missing documentation and can be rectified by providing what is missing. A phone call to LIEAP could help in this case.
Should you be approved for LIEAP assistance, payments are mailed directly to MDU. LIEAP assistance is from the month of approval through May, and you must manually apply each year for the following year.
If you heat with electricity, you will definitely see the increase in your MDU bill.
“But if you don’t and your overall heating bill increases, you can still apply to LIEAP,” said Burgess.
A second resource is the City of Sheridan’s Utility Assistance Program (UAP) for residents age 65 and older who own their home. This program provides a 50-percent reduction in water, sewer, and trash costs. The reduction can help free up money to pay utility costs. But you must qualify for LIEAP to apply for UAP assistance, according to Dan Roberts, City of Sheridan Utilities Division Manager. The UAP application can be filled out at the customer service desk at City Hall, but you must bring your current LIEAP awards letter with you.
Energy Share of Wyoming is a third resource for heating payment assistance. For Sheridan County residents, the Salvation Army manages this program. Applications for assistance are accepted beginning around November but vary from year-to-year based on demand for assistance and funding levels.
Another strategy is to go on balanced billing with MDU.
“You can contact MDU about a balanced billing plan where you pay the same amount every month,” said Nancy Drummond, Community Service Coordinator. “This way you know every month what to expect to pay.”
Be energy conscience in your home. Forty-two percent of utilities are used in space heating with water heating following in second place. Adequate insulation, replacing worn out appliances with energy efficient appliances and turning down the temperature on your water heater help.
“And turn off the lights when you leave a room,” said Drummond.