MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Despite winter's warm start and a sharp drop in natural gas prices, more Minnesotans are behind on their utility bills than at this time last year.
From Oct. 1 to Dec. 15, the number of Minnesotans who received grants from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program was up 5 percent to 51,521.
The increase is yet another sign of the broader economic slowdown. And the state's largest utilities, Xcel Energy and Reliant Energy, say they've noticed the pinch through changes in the number and size of past-due accounts.
State officials, who administer the federally-funded energy assistance program in cooperation with non-profit organizations, told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis that rising unemployment is the chief reason more people are falling behind on their bills.
John Harvanko, director of energy assistance programs for the Minnesota Department of Commerce, said there are still a lot of people with unpaid bills from last winter.
Also, he said more people know about the assistance program and are inclined to seek help. In part, he believes that's due to increased outreach by the agency.
During the 2000-01 heating season, the assistance program issued grants to more than 110,000 households, up from 84,000 the year before.
Minnesota received $89.5 million in federal energy-assistance funds for the 2000-01 heating season. The state has been allocated $49 million for the 2001-02 heating season, but there is a chance that supplemental funding will be approved by Congress.
Meanwhile, utilities are also monitoring changes in past-due accounts.
Xcel said about 163,000 customers were overdue on Dec. 1, up from about 156,000 a year ago. Spokesman Ed Legge said the delinquency total includes customers who are carrying balances from last winter's expensive heating season.
Last winter, gas prices hit record highs and there were long periods of low temperatures that pushed up demand. This year, gas prices are down about 30 percent and temperatures didn't reach the teens and single-digits until this week.
At Reliant Energy, the number of overdue customers as of Nov. 1, the latest date for which data is available, was about 54,000, down from 61,000 a year ago. But the utility says those customers owe more money, about $7.4 million, compared to $6.1 million a year ago.
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