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Utilities reach out to consumers

Utility bills mounted for William Zwiefka when he moved from Niagara Falls to North Tonawanda, but he didn't know where to turn.

He is deaf, on Social Security Disability and says he sometimes doesn't get the same information other customers receive.

"I tried to pay, but it's really been hard for me," Zwiefka, 38, said through a sign language interpreter. "I don't know what to do, and nobody seems to be able to help me because I'm deaf."

Zwiefka was one of about two dozen people who gathered in Niagara Falls Public Library on Thursday to meet with representatives of area utility companies to air concerns and get help. The meeting was sponsored by Independent Living of Niagara County and geared toward people with disabilities.

Consumer advocates from New York State Electric & Gas, National Grid and the Niagara County Department of Social Services gave them a message of hope. There are programs to help customers in need, but people must communicate with the companies when they start to fall behind.

"I would urge everyone to not ignore a notice," said Kathi Dombrowski, a NYSEG consumer advocate. "You may get a letter saying you're being referred to the Department of Social Services, but don't count on that because sometimes they're overwhelmed."

Dombrowski said customers who are at least 62 years old or who are disabled are eligible for special protection from services being cut off.

"It's really, really important for people to identify themselves if your household is in that protected category," Dombrowski said.

Customers also can work out plans in which they pay overdue invoices in installments as they pay current bills.

Other programs available include:

* Customers can request a hold on bills during an extended medical emergency.

* NYSEG's Power Partner program offers discounted bills for low-income customers. For more information, call 1-800-284-7988.

* EmPower New York is a program offered by National Grid that offers up to $1,500 for home energy conservation measures to income-eligible residents. Call (800) 263-0960.

* The Home Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP, is a federally funded program that provides payments to help pay for heating bills. For information call (800) 243-3009.

Several people at the meeting Thursday described frustrating situations where bills continued to pile up as they waited for help.

Cambria resident Jim Dunch said his family has struggled to live on his small pension and disability payments as other bills, like heat and electricity, skyrocket.

Dunch would like the federal and state governments to revise income guidelines to address rising costs. The help he received from HEAP last year paid for only 47 gallons of heating oil -- an amount the oil companies refused to deliver.

"Your money is so close end to end that you can't make it stretch," said Dunch, who worked as a gear finisher for 33 years before he was injured on the job.

Lorna Salmeri, a supervisor at Niagara County's Department of Social Services, said HEAP benefits available this winter have increased.

e-mail: djewell@buffnews.com

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