Georgia Power Charging Late Fees on LIHEAP Payments

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(APN) ATLANTA — Georgia Power is assessing late fees to customers across the State of Georgia who are approved for heating assistance through the federal Low-Income Heating and Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) program, during a six week processing time that it takes for the government funds to post.

APN has previously reported on the LIHEAP program in Georgia, where Cobb County almost immediately ran out of funds this year, and Fulton County ran through its first installment of funds in record time.

Once a customer is approved through their county’s community action authority, such as the Fulton-Atlanta Community Action Authority (FACAA), for a LIHEAP payment, the authority can report a pledged, approved payment by telephone. Still it takes six weeks for the payment to be processed.

Despite accepting the payment, Georgia Power continues to assess late fees during this time that it is waiting for payment, and uses the LIHEAP funds, once they arrive, to cover any late fees that accrued while they were waiting for the pledged, approved payment to be processed.

Georgia assisted 250,000 households receiving LIHEAP in 2010, according to liheap.org. If each of them were receiving a four dollar late fee, that would be an additional million dollars, enough to provide maximum benefits to an additional 2,857 Georgia families under the program.

Georgia Power spokesperson Christy Ihrig confirmed that it was not their current policy to refund late fees accruing to LIHEAP-approved customers, even if the company agrees to accept the pledged payment.

Ihrig says that the company continues to charge the fee because it is not sure the LIHEAP payment will actually be received.

“It turns out there’s a high incidence of more than one person applying for funds for a household, and fraud. We haven’t been able to set up a system,” for crediting late fees, Ihrig said.

When asked if a LIHEAP customer can dispute the late fee after the payment posts to the account, “Not if it [the LIHEAP payment] is late. If a balance is still carried, then no,” Ihrig said.

Georgia Power noted that it participates in a program called Project Share, where it matches dollar for dollar any donations made by Georgia Power customers, to create a fund for low-income customers. These funds are available through the Salvation Army.

Georgia Power also noted that it will conduct a free energy audit for any customer, and will send out a Georgia Power expert to analyze inefficiencies in a customer’s home, to decrease their heating bills as well.

When asked whether a late fee is an appropriate use of LIHEAP funds, “Obviously we would want the funds to go specifically to heating and not charges. If it can help with fees, we’re happy about that too. Unfortunately, we have fees. But with the way we’re running the business right now,” there’s no way to credit the fees, Ihrig said.

When APN pointed out how many additional families could be assisted with the LIHEAP funds if Georgia Power were not assessing late fees, Ihrig said, “That’s not something we’ve pursued at this time. We’re open to it,” adding that they would need to work with the Georgia Public Service Commission on such a change.

Ihrig admitted such a change would not be too difficult in terms of technology either, noting that LIHEAP customers’ accounts could be flagged for a fee credit.

Georgia Power said it has a contract with the state regarding LIHEAP funds.

The Georgia PSC does not oversee the LIHEAP program, spokesperson Bill Edge told APN.

“LIHEAP is distributed by the [Georgia] Department of Human Services. It’s federal money, given to states. DHS contracts with community action agencies. There is no oversight by the PSC. We have given money to DHS out of the Universal Service Fund, but that’s not LIHEAP. A late fee is under our purview. How LIHEAP is paid is not under our purview,” Edge said.

Georgia DHS spokesperson Dena Smith said that any rules regarding whether LIHEAP could pay for a late fee would come from the federal government and that the state would not have an individualized contract. Smith referred APN to the US Department of Energy.

However, upon doing Internet research, APN found that each state is supposed to have a State Plan. Smith has not returned two follow-up calls seeking the LIHEAP state plan for Georgia.

“While the Department of Energy interacts with LIHEAP through it’s [sic] Weatherization program, LIHEAP is federally administered through the Department of Health and Human Services,” Ebony Meeks, Assistant Press Secretary for the US Department of Energy, wrote in an email.

Kenneth Wolfe at US HHS did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

APN’s editor, the present writer, filed a complaint with the Georgia Public Service Commission regarding Georgia Power’s practice on February 25, 2011. The complaint seeks the refund of thousands in late fees to LIHEAP-assisted customers across the State of Georgia. The complaint–which also includes a request that four dollars and five cents be refunded to the present writer’s home heating bill–is being investigated by PSC Specialist Lisa Jensen.

(END / 2011)

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