Organizations that assist with electric bills say people are inundating them with requests for help after Vectren sent out thousands of inflated bills to correct previous low estimates.
“We’ve had almost 600 new clients who we’d never seen before,” said Knight Township Trustee Kathryn Martin. “We’ve had to cut back on the amount we’re able to help with because we have more clients to serve. People are sobbing when they walk up to the window, and we just have to say, ‘Hang tight, we’re going to work this out with you.’”
Martin noticed people arriving at the Knight Township office with Vectren bills that were several times the norm in August — and there has been a steady stream ever since, she said. Other agencies, including St. Vincent de Paul and the Catholic Charities, also say they’re getting more requests for Vectren help, though they say it is difficult to determine which requests are due to the estimation error. Local charities are always flooded with more people applying for energy assistance than there is money to help, they say.
Other local townships have not noticed a substantial difference in the number of people seeking assistance.
Vectren said Wednesday that it under estimated about 7,000 bills between June and August because of a mistake in an algorithm used in the calculations. At the same time, the company said it was estimating more meters than usual because of an issue with its meter reading contractor and a bumpy rerouting process.
The combination of issues meant that thousands of people went several months paying less than they owed, and when the company did get to their meters they all faced “trued up” bills.
“People didn’t know what was going on,” Martin said. “The amounts we’re seeing are astronomical.”
Hundreds of people posted their bill amounts to the Courier & Press Facebook page this week. Tiffany Hillenbrand said her bill went from $170 to $458 this month. Nick Hughes’ went from about $300 to $806. Amanda Marie’s went from about $170 to $954.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Marie said. “That bill is more than I get in a month. I already pay them what I can. I don’t think they know how much people struggle.”
Vectren has offered no-interest payment plans for people affected by the estimates, but Martin said this is not a good option for the low income people who live paycheck to paycheck.
“The only arrangement (Vectren gave) me ... was $176 on top of my regular monthly bill for the next three months,” Kayla Bell wrote on the Courier & Press Facebook page. “Next month will be my last payment. It was awful.”
But, for many around the city, that is their best option. Although there are half a dozen organizations in town that offer Vectren assistance, money for such programs is always tight. And even when there is money, most of the organizations in town will only pay a portion of someone’s bill.
Marie plans to apply for CAPE’s winter energy assistance program, which officially begins accepting applications Monday. If she gets on that program, it will keep her power from being turned off, and help pay down the bill.
CAPE’s winter program fills up quickly every year, said Alice Weathers, CAPE’s director. Last year, they helped 6,000 people.
“We will start taking appointments on Monday,” Weathers said. “We will take appointments through the end of the year. But we expect all those appointments to be filled up on Monday.”
Even with all the help available in Evansville, there are many who find themselves with looming bills due, and limited options for paying them, Martin said. And when it gets down to the wire, people end up making some tough decisions about what they’re going to pay.
“They’ll get the disconnect notice and pay that and not pay rent,” Martin said. “It’s a toss up. They’ll say, ‘I have 30 days from eviction, let me pay Vectren so at least I can keep the lights on. Then I’ll have that time to figure something else out.’”
Since August, more people than average are also applying to Knight Township for help making rental payments, Martin said. She believes this is also a direct result of the Vectren estimation issue.
With so much money going to help with Vectren bills this year, Martin said she’s going to have to watch her overall budget closely so she doesn’t run out of money. In June, the Trustee paid out around $4,000 in Vectren assistance — which is about average, Martin said. In August, they paid $7,400.
“You kind of just hope and pray,” she said. “Somehow, someway, we’ll be able to make it through. We may have to scale back on some of the other things we do.”