- Cold weather puts Midwest in deep freeze, headed east (WIS, 01/06/2003)
- Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)
CHICAGO (FinalCall.com) – The Chicago Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) have mounted a proactive campaign to pressure Illinois state representatives to approve a bill that would prevent utility shutoffs. According to ACORN, 22,000 low-income Chicagoans had been disconnected as winter approached.
“Ironically all of those who have been cut off are Black,” Madeline Talbott, executive director of ACORN, told The Final Call. She added that at least two deaths this year have been attributed to the cut-offs because people have had to use space heaters, which have caused fires.
On December 18, ACORN held a rally at the offices of Congressman Dennis Hastert, who is the Speaker of the House and an Illinois resident, to get him to support House Bill 2380, which will be placed on the active Illinois state legislative docket in 2004.
“The bill provides for eligible households to pay no more than six percent of annual income for gas and electric service,” Ms. Talbott said, adding that the bill also sets a “reasonable” ceiling on the payments that low-income people are expected to pay to retain energy service.
On November 6, ACORN protested at the corporate headquarters of People’s Energy in downtown Chicago. Among the protesters were senior citizens, disability recipients and unemployed workers. “I have sleep apnea, and have to carry a respirator. I try to spend my nights at the homes of different family members so that I can keep warm. My health condition is too severe for me to stay in a cold apartment,” an unidentified protester told reporters.
In response, People’s Energy turned the gas back on for 33 people, but has yet to support Bill 2380, ACORN said.
Also, according to ACORN, Illinois Lt. Governor Pat Quinn formulated The Good Samaritan Initiative, which allows low-income people to get their heat reconnected by paying 20 percent of their arrearage or $250, whichever is less.
“Although a thoughtful plan, it fails to bring resolve to the many elderly shut-off victims on fixed incomes of $600 or less and customers with an astronomically high energy bill,” an ACORN spokesperson said, adding that the elderly constitute 12 percent of the shut-off victims in Chicago.
“However, we found that People’s Energy did not agree to The Good Samaritan Initiative Plan terms, and is only willing to accommodate Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) eligible and approved customers with a gas bill under $3,000,” Laura Kai, communications director of ACORN, said.
“The problem with this plan is that it does not get rid of the arrearage and after the first of April these customers will face shut offs again. That is why we are asking People’s Energy to support HB2380,” Ms. Talbott’insisted. Calls to People’s Energy were not returned at Final Call press time.
Ms. Talbott admitted that they have yet to find a state legislator to sponsor HB2380. “In fact, Representative Charles Morrow (D-32) is a key member of the Public Utilities Committee, and he has yet to declare his support for the bill,” Ms. Talbott said. “And that seems rather peculiar since most of the people facing cut-offs live in his district,” she added.
“On the contrary,” Represen-tative Morrow responded during an interview with The Final Call. “I am the vice-chairman of the Public Utilities Committee, so why would I not vote for this bill,” he said.
He maintained that the issue is that he will not sponsor the bill. “Seventy-two percent of the people in my district are Black, and the other 35 percent are Latino,” he stressed. “I have met with the ACORN people, and I have asked questions, which they have yet to answer.”
His main concern was who would make up the difference, when the people are given the percentage break that ACORN seeks. “When ACORN comes forth with a revenue stream, I would gladly sponsor the bill. This is a bill that would pass easily,” he added.
He contends that the utility companies and the consumer groups have to talk this issue out rationally.
“Maybe rational discussion works in Chicago, but that hasn’t been the case in Rhode Island,” Amy Olin of the Rhode Island ACORN organization said. At the start of September, 17,000 Rhode Islanders were cut off, and the figure in December is 6,000. Most of the cut-offs were in Providence, where there is a large minority population.
“We have had rallies and meetings. The Rhode Island Attorney General and the governor have said that the cut-off issue must be placed on the front burner by New England Gas Company, but the Public Service Commission said there is not enough evidence to warrant them to put pressure on the utility company, so that people may receive a cost-of-living break on their bills,” Ms. Olin explained, adding that in the past two years people have had to face gas bills from $2,000 to $3,000 a year. “So, we will continue to organize.”
ACORN has organized movements in at least 15 cities, according to Ms. Talbott, mostly in the Northeast.
She believes that the rapid increase in natural gas costs has fueled the problem. “But, we cannot deal with the cause until we get people turned back on,” she concluded.