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108429097Low-income people who are trying to get help from the State Emergency Relief (SER) program to help pay utility bills may be left in the cold this winter thanks to new legislation.

Lawmakers passed a bill that limits the time when you can apply for the program.  That means more people may get power shut-off notices.

“This change limits the payment of household heat and electric bills to the so-called “crisis season” which is November 1 through May 31,” says Ed Hoort, executive director of Legal Services of Eastern Michigan.  “Because of the new law hundreds of low-income people may now face shut-off notices and may be left without heat and power when they need it most.”

Before the new law was passed, low-income people could apply for SER throughout the year, now they can only apply from November through May. That means if they’re on the Winter Protection Program through their utility company for uniform payments throughout the year and they have exceeded their allotment, they may not be able to apply for SER for emergency help to pay the outstanding balance.

“People, who default on the Winter Protection Program and don’t pay that additional amount, are not eligible to get another payment plan through their utility company.  That puts them at risk of going without heat and electricity at the worst time of year.” says Hoort.  In the past, in one month, approximately 2500 people applied for SER in Genesee County alone, to pay that additional balance.

The new law also causes a problem when it comes to calculating the monthly bills for the Winter Protection Plan.  The Department of Human Services has always calculated monthly rates by reviewing bills from the past six months from the date of the application.  With the new timetable, more calculations will be made over the summer months when heat is not needed which will create much lower rates, resulting in a higher cumulative bill at the end of the year.

The new law is also causing problems with other programs.  Some DHS workers are confusing the time limit and are using it on unrelated cases.  For example, last week a Legal Services of Eastern Michigan case regarding relocation costs in a landlord/tenant case was denied because DHS confused the policy and said the claim had to be made in the November to May time slot, which it did not.

The new law took effect October 1st.

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