Government prepares for rate increases

GARDNERVILLE - State and county social agencies are preparing for winter early as the full effect of utility hikes for electric and gas service kick in when temperatures start to drop.

Consumers can expect their gas bills to to be about 97 percent higher than last year and electricity about 25 percent. The state's Public Utilities Commission earlier this year cleared requests by Southwest Gas and Sierra Pacific electric for the rate increases.

While many families have already begun to feel the pinch, agencies are especially concerned about senior citizens.

Karen Goode, director of social services in Douglas County, fears some seniors could think they have limited options when it comes to their bills. She said when it comes to utilities and their health and well being, some seniors could make compromises.

"I am concerned that seniors may feel as though they have no choice. So they will pay their rent and bills but go hungry. That's why we've freed up as much food money as possible," Goode said.

Several mechanisms are in place that are meant to help seniors on fixed incomes. First, Sierra Pacific Power has a program called Share the Warm Feeling, where one-time credits of up to $200 are given for people who qualify.

The Salvation Army also offers a similar program with Southwest Gas.

Also, the Douglas County department of Social Services offers food vouchers for seniors. Goode said the program, run though the Food Closet, gives seniors and people with low incomes food to feed themselves and their families.

Local nonprofit agencies fund the Food Closet, which has plenty of food stocked.

Some people, especially retired people who are in a bind, may feel as though by going to the food bank they are taking food from others, Goode said.

"They shouldn't. We really do have a generous community that commits time and money to the project. It's important for all people to know this. There is no reason to go hungry," she said.

Meanwhile, the state Bureau of Consumer Protection will continue to monitor impacts on ratepayers.

ln February 2002, Sierra Pacific is expected to ask for another rate hike of 15 percent for Northern Nevada customers, said Tim Hay, consumer advocate for the Attorney General's Office.

The hikes pose problems for people not only at the poverty level but working families throughout the state with modest household incomes.

"Our concern is that we could have a cold winter and the impacts will be very burdensome for average Nevadans and small businesses that are energy intensive," Hay said.


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