More in Stanislaus County needing utility bill help

As the economy wobbles along, some of the customers lined up in the Modesto Irrigation District lobby Wednesday afternoon had grim stories to tell.

One woman, Sandra Lancaster, was desperate to get her power restored after it was turned off earlier in the day for nonpayment. She has a sick family member at home.

A 30-year-old unemployed single father of three, Jamal Davis, said he owed more than $500 on his electric bill for the past two months and wanted to see if he could set up a payment plan.

And Kelly Sewell paid $200 toward the $555 her family owes. The 40-year-old Modesto mother of four said she was laid off in January. She and her husband filed for bankruptcy in July and lost their home.

Sewell said her husband still is employed but the family's income is down by one-third, and they struggle to keep on top of their bills.

"You just can't cover everything," Sewell said, "especially when you have four kids. We're living paycheck to paycheck."

As the recession squeezes more Stanislaus County families, increasing numbers are falling behind or need help with their utility bills.

Some families find that an emergency car repair or visit to the doctor, or cut in their hours at work can leave them without enough cash for food, rent and heat.

"All of it is being driven by higher unemployment, jobs that have been lost," said Maj. Darvin Carpenter, county coordinator of The Salvation Army. "If you are living on the cusp, one bad day can ruin you for a year."

Some sobering numbers:

The Salvation Army in Modesto saw a 55 percent increase in the number of qualified families requesting one-time help with their utility bills from June through October compared with the same period last year. The Salvation Army had funding to help about a third of the increase. It tried to refer the rest to churches and other agencies.

Typically, the Modesto Irrigation District receives 300 to 400 applications each month for its CARES program, which reduces the monthly electric bill for low- income residents. The MID received 800 applications in January and now is receiving about 1,300 applications a month.

The Turlock Irrigation District has seen a 34 percent increase from October 2008 to this October in the number of customers in programs that discount their electric bills. About 8,700 customers are enrolled in such programs as CARES.

The number of callers to the United Way's 211 social services referral line seeking help with utility bills jumped from 216 from July through October last year to 481 from this July through October.

"We are hearing more that their income has stopped or they have gone from a two-income family to a one-income family or they are waiting for unemployment or unemployment extensions," said Linda Tagholm, the 211 program manager.

The MID has issued about 40 percent more late notices this year compared with 2008, and service disconnects are up about 15 percent, MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers on payment plans have increased from October 2008 to this October by 27 percent across the state, from Bakersfield to the Oregon border. Payment plans typically are made when customers are past due.

PG&E also has seen a 14 percent increase in the number of low- income customers in its CARE program, which lowers their monthly bill.

The Central Valley Opportunity Center received more than $2.4 million in federal funds this year to help county residents with utility bills, nearly 2½ times more than the previous year now that there is a new administration in Washington.

The money helped low- and moderate-income families who received shut-off notices, and seasonal workers, the disabled, families with young children and seniors on fixed incomes with their utility bills.

"We spent this money very quickly for the amount of money we received," said Jean Warren, CVOC program manager.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at or 578-2316.