Bill hardship surges

LATROBE Valley residents are feeling the financial pressure more than ever, with welfare agencies recording a surge in clients facing utility disconnections after struggling to meet energy bills.

The surge comes as gas and electricity prices jumped recently, with some energy retailers marking up prices as much as 18 per cent in the new year.

Salvation Army Latrobe community outreach and support services manager Joedy Meers said the organisation had begun to handle walk-ins with ‘disconnection of service’ notices on a daily basis.

“At least once a day we are ringing energy retailers on behalf of someone who’s about to get cut off; by contrast we only a saw a couple of people a week last year,” Ms Meers said.

“I just spoke to a lady who had to choose between paying for electricity or medicine this month; for those people that live on a low income, they just can’t afford utilities at the moment; it’s just not in their budget.”

Anglicare Gippsland team leader of financial counselling Rachel Tobias confirmed the growing trend, and said there had been an increase in clients with utility payment difficulties from five clients per week to 15 over the last 18 months.

“It’s a pretty grim trajectory we are on here; utilities have always been the number one issue for our clients, but now we’ve got people coming in with (accumulative) bills around $1000 to $2000 dollars,” Ms Tobias said.

She said while larger energy retailers such as TRUenergy and Origin showed compassion through negotiation of extended payment plans, smaller power utility retailers had recently become more “ruthless”, and were putting pressure on clients to pay out debts owed quicker.

“There’s been a definite change in that behaviour this year; (retailers) have said they are no longer going into budget plans with our clients any more,” Ms Tobias said.

“I guess the retailers are trying to tell us they’ve lost their patience, but many of our clients are just not going to be able to meet the levels of payment they are asking.”

The Energy and Water Ombudsman Victoria, who investigates complaints between consumers and utility providers, also confirmed the trend, recording an increase in ‘credit’ complaints, which refers to bills issued but remained unpaid.

A comparison of EWOV data for Latrobe City Council district from the periods of 1 July 2010 to 30 April 2011 and 1 July 2011 to 30 April 2012 shows an increase in bill collection complaints from 27 to 49, payment difficulty complaints rising from 33 to 40, while complaints regarding disconnection and restriction of a utility service rising from 80 to 113.

Ms Meers said ombudsman figures were only a small snapshot of the scale of the problem, as many of her clients struggled to even negotiate with power companies on their own terms, let alone make ombudsman complaints.

“All of this is about empowerment; we don’t want to create a system where they are wholly dependant on the Salvos, but when things get this hard, you can’t help but blame them for being demoralised,” Ms Meers said.

“Most of the people we deal with are in less then ideal housing and don’t have the benefit of insulation, and they often spend a lot of time at home as unemployed single parents, which means in turn they are going to use more electricity.”

Single parent and Churchill resident Emma Parry said her utility bills had risen significantly in the last six months, and has been cutting back wherever she can to meet power bills and “stay afloat”.

“I’m not eating as well as I should because of it … but I can’t get upset, that will get the better of you,” Ms Parry said. “Whining and complaining won’t help; yes, the prices are out of our hands, but we don’t have a right to complain unless we do something about it ourselves.”