Prospect of higher heating bills worrying elderly, poor

Monday, September 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Although temperatures are still in the 90s in much of Oklahoma, Jan Mercer is already worried about winter.

The executive director of the Jesus House homeless shelter is concerned about the impact an anticipated 76 percent increase in natural gas prices will have on her facility's winter heating bill.

"This is going to have a terrible effect on us. It's all we can do now to pay for what bills we have," Mercer said recently.

She isn't the only one concerned. The elderly and the working poor also are wondering how they will juggle higher bills.

"I know people who will stay cold in the winter and won't turn up their heat because they are proud people who want to pay their bills," said Donna Bowers, vice president of the Daily Living Center in Oklahoma City.

"I think you will have a lot of people really in trouble in the elderly population."

Oklahomans who are coping with higher electric bills during this record-setting hot summer can trace the prospect of paying higher gas bills in the winter to last year's oil price crisis, officials say.

The price of natural gas is expected to increase because of decreased production. Prices below $10 a barrel for oil last year discouraged drilling for natural gas, experts say.

Oklahoma Natural Gas has said its customers could see a 50 percent to 60 percent increase in their bills this year.

Such a prospect leaves Oklahoma's most vulnerable residents cringing at the thought of the coming winter.

The Jesus House tries to raise money for people who have trouble paying their bills, but that program could be in trouble. Higher gasoline prices at the pump have forced shelter officials to eliminate the program to pick up donations at people's homes.

"How we are going to handle it, I don't know," Mercer said.

"We are going to have to pray."

Glenn Cranfield, executive director of the City Rescue Mission, is concerned about possible higher heating prices, but he also worries for the working poor.

"How are people going to handle the costs? There are those who live day to day and month to month," Cranfield said.

With an increase seeming inevitable, Clara Haas, a senior citizens' advocate from Oklahoma City, has some suggestions.

"We are going to have to look not only at how to make the payments but how to conserve," said Haas, who added that she has received numerous calls from worried people.

Some people may need to shut off extra rooms or stop cold air from getting in, she said.

"We've got to look at the whole broad spectrum of this increase," Haas said.

"Seniors may have to decide to cut back on some things."