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More Apply for Calif. Energy Aid

May 6, 2002

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FRESNO, Calif. (AP) _ At laundromats, discount stores and churches around California, community groups are hunting for men like Pheng Lee, whose family’s monthly utility bill swelled to $300 at the height of last year’s energy crisis.

Lee was happy to be found by fellow Asian-Americans from Fresno’s Lao Family Community. The group allowed him to join other low-income residents in knocking 20 percent off their energy costs.

Over the past year, groups from San Diego to Eureka have helped enroll roughly half a million more customers in the California Alternate Rates on Energy program, which helps residents cope in one of the nation’s most expensive electricity markets.

Each of the state’s four major private utilities has enrolled more than half of its eligible customers.

``I’ve seen people carrying their PG&E bill looking around for a place to sign up,″ said Lee, a Blue Cross of California outreach coordinator, at a bustling Lao new year festival where Lao Family was promoting CARE.

Last May, the four utilities collectively enrolled less than half the roughly 3.2 million customers eligible for CARE, prompting the California Public Utilities Commission to demand improvement.

The utilities responded by changing their message and messenger. They began staffing tents at cultural festivals and discount store parking lots. They adapted their CARE presentations to each community, adding mariachi bands when recruiting Mexican customers or Russian-speaking radio personalities when courting Eastern Europeans. They gave the kids balloons and raffled off energy efficient refrigerators for the grown-ups.

They also leaned more heavily on community groups, tribes and religious organizations to reach other customers. In exchange for spreading word door-to-door and appearing at events, the groups receive up to $12 for each person they enroll. The money, to cover administrative costs, comes from a fund set up last year by the state legislature.

``It has been a tremendous tool to get near the middle of our customers who need this program the most,″ said Claudia Mendoza, a PG&E spokeswoman.

Still, the utilities have a way to go, said Terrie Prosper, a Public Utilities Commission spokeswoman.

Prosper said that while the commission was encouraged, ``we expect the utilities to continue to improve their outreach and increase their participation numbers.″

Each culture and community presents different challenges.

Because many of the Central Valley’s Hmong, Cambodian and Lao immigrants do not read or write, Vince Moua of the Stockton’s Lao Family Community visits homes to discuss CARE and walk the initially wary families through the application process.

``You have to be clear, and the best way to do that is to explain to them first and foremost what you are doing and what kind of benefit that they can get from the program,″ Moua said.

In Los Angeles, Carmen Camecho of the Charo Community Development Corp. says many Latino immigrants are ineligible for CARE because they receive their utility bills under a previous tenant’s name. Often, families can’t afford to pay the deposit, or they lack the credit references to open their own utility account, Camecho said.

``Our job is to go out and educate them and let them know how important it is to establish everything in their names,″ Camecho said.

All utility customers contribute a small percentage of their bills to fund various assistance programs, including CARE, which helps low-income residents, fixed-income seniors and students with incomes up to 175 percent of the federal poverty line.

That makes a home with one or two residents eligible with an income of $22,000 or less, a three-person home, with $25,900 or less. It also exempts customers from electricity rate hikes issued last year.

But CARE is just one way the state, PG&E, Edison, San Diego Gas and Electric Co. and Southern California Gas can help residents bills, the groups say. There must be emphasis on energy conservation along with more funding for energy-efficient appliances and home improvements.

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On the Net:

California Public Utilities Commission: http://www.cpuc.ca.gov

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