DENVER — When she opened a recent natural gas bill, Deb Foley found an unwelcome surprise: her bill had tripled from $50 to nearly $160.
"I was shocked, and a little frustrated, of course, and thought it was a mistake," she said. But it was no mistake, as thousands of other Xcel customers who found similarly high bills can attest.
Higher natural gas prices combined with an Xcel rate hike led to big increases, starting with November's bill.
Foley wasn't expecting that budget-busting bill -- and neither were the organizations that help people who are struggling to pay.
"There's high and then there's this," said Energy Outreach Colorado (EOC) spokesperson Denise Stepto. "We didn't anticipate this."
The increase in costs has led to a big spike in the number of people who need assistance paying their bills, she said. So far this month, EOC has helped 20% more people than it did last January. When the first higher bill came due around Christmas, Stepto said EOC call centers fielded three times the normal number of inquiries.
"People want to pay their bills, they just don't know how in the world they're going to do that," she said.
Nonprofit EOC and another group, the government-supported LEAP program, are designed to help people pay their bills and both recommended resources on the Xcel website. But both have the same limitation, especially in the face of high demand: they can each only help once per season.
Vanessa Pena works for LEAP and said her organization has received 10% more requests for assistance this winter. Once a customer has used the one-time LEAP assistance, Pena recommended reaching out to other local agencies to see if they can help.
"People have to be thoughtful about when they're going for this assistance," Stepto said. She said EOC offers advice on energy cost saving tips -- and works with clients to determine whether they qualify for other programs, like ones that help repair and replace inefficient furnaces.
Xcel said it offers customers payment plans if they're struggling to pay their bills. The company also reported good news on the horizon: due to a decrease in natural gas costs, February bills are expected to be $17 lower for the average residential customer.
Foley said she can afford to pay the higher bill, but she's concerned for others who might struggle. "Do I like it? No. Do I think it's fair? No," she said. "But we've got to stick together and figure it out."
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