Big Chill

It's been a warm winter — but not for some Laclede Gas customers

For most St. Louisans, days like January 8, when the mercury climbed to a record 71 degrees, provide a welcome respite from winter. But for people like Nikki Hobba, who suffers from a debilitating spinal condition, such winter warm-ups can serve as hazardous precursors to a prolonged big chill.

On January 3, the 54-year-old Hobba answered a knock at the door of her small south St. Louis County apartment and was greeted by a Laclede Gas Company service worker. When Hobba, a former jewelry designer who hopes to do hospice work after completing a degree in psychology at UMSL, couldn't produce $200 on the spot, the Laclede employee shut off her gas.

Hobba, who supports herself and her daughter (who also attends college full-time) with a small monthly disability check, called Laclede's customer-service department to ask why she hadn't received advance notice of the shutoff. The gas company said they had called her, on December 21. Hobba says she received no notice: no call, no message on her answering machine.

Regardless, had the first days of January not been atypically balmy, Hobba's gas would have remained on, thanks to a state regulation known as the Cold Weather Rule. Under this rule, enforced by the Missouri Public Service Commission, between November 1 and March 31 the gas company may not terminate service to customers whose annual income is less than 150 percent of the federal poverty line ($12,830 for a family of two such as Hobba's) if the weather is forecast to drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit within a 24-hour time period.

The flip side: Should a warm-weather window open, the gas company is free to cut off service — and the Cold Weather Rule contains no provision for delinquent customers to have their gas turned back on when the wind blows back in from the north.

"This is homicide with older people," says Hobba's close friend Carol Dees.

According to the American Medical Association's Family Medical Guide, "a life threatening drop in body temperature can develop quickly in an older person if the room temperature is lower than 65 degrees Farenheit."

Laclede Gas spokesman George Csolak says Hobba's recent delinquency is unusual, and that her predicament could have been avoided had she given the gas company some sort of advance notification of her financial struggles.

"When we look at someone like her and they show a decent pay history, we'll work with them," says Csolak. "But we need to hear from them."

Hobba says she did contact Laclede Gas, seeking assistance via its Dollar Help program in early December. She says she was referred to an Overland nonprofit called the Community Action Agency, but their Dollar Help coffers were empty.

"The funds that we had available are gone," confirms CAA spokesman Rich Krueger, whose organization is one of many local agencies that contract with Laclede to dole out Dollar Help dollars. "This year has been catastrophic — the bills are so much higher. We've had more activity in terms of energy assistance this year than in at least the last ten."

Dollar Help, funded by Laclede Gas customers who opt to check a box at the top of their monthly billing statement, raised $48,000 in 2005, according to Csolak. But although this year's fund-raising efforts to date have been in line with last year's, local gas bills increased by about 38 percent in November and December. (As a relief measure, on January 10 the Public Service Commission okayed Laclede's request for a 7 percent rate reduction.)

On January 5 Hobba scraped together $130 — enough to induce the gas company to resume service. Her energy-saving plan for the new year: "Walk around with sweaters and blankets."

And hope it doesn't get too warm outside.

 
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