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Heating bills lighten wallets; help is available

As temperatures go down, the cost of heating homes goes up. Some people in River Falls are having a hard time covering those costs, according to Ronna Ellis of the Assistance and Resource Center, Inc. (ARC), an organization that provides short-term financial assistance to River Falls and Ellsworth residents

As winter temperatures have plunged, heating bills have risen. And as the bills pile up, many people may not know where to turn.

The first place they should go is their utility company, said River Falls Utility Director Kevin Westhuis. He says people who get electric heat from RFMU should call if they’re struggling to pay.

“We’re a local phone call away,” Westhuis said. “We work with almost everybody who calls in. We work out some kind of payment plan… we’re here to help.”

However, as utility companies aren’t allowed to shut off the heat until April 15, Westhuis said people often ignore mounting utility bills until April.

“Then the problem gets worse,” Westhuis said. “We do want to help people and assist people with high bills.”

Westhuis and RFMU customer service representative Rhonda Davidson there is only so much they can do to work with people who have very large, unpaid utility bills.

“If they’ve not paid their electricity bill all winter long, chances are we’re not going to be as willing to work with them (on April 15),” Westhuis said.

Westhuis said by April 15, RFMU will have tried to contact customers via bills, past-due notices and phone calls.

While RFMU will work with customers to try and create a payment plan, Westhuis said some customers may need more help than that.

RFMU customer service representatives also have a list of resources struggling customers can tap for help, including ARC (Assistance and Resource Center Inc.), WestCAP -- which handles the St. Croix County Energy Assistance Program -- and Pierce County Energy Assistance.

When multiple-unit dwellings are included, about half the homes in River Falls use electric heat, Westhuis said.

Homes that do not have electric heat may have natural gas or propane heating.

St. Croix Gas provides natural gas to many homes in the River Falls area.

St. Croix Gas Vice President Marti Piepgras said gas prices have gone up this winter, along with this winter’s extreme cold weather. This February, the effective rate for gas was $1.0032 per therm for residential service. Last February, it was $0.6763. One therm is the amount of energy it would take to heat 100,000 pounds of water by one degree. Therms are often used as a heating measurement by gas companies etc.

Piepgras said utility bills have increased this winter as prices naturally go up with demand as weather gets colder. And as weather gets colder, it takes more gas to heat the house. Increased gas usage also means a larger bill.

St. Croix Gas customer service representative Char Brenna said she hasn’t noticed more people than usual calling to say they’re having trouble with their gas bills, but it will become clearer toward April who is behind.

For those people, Brenna said they should call St. Croix Gas’s customer service number and work out a payment plan.

Many rural River Falls area residents heat their homes with propane, bought from Pierce Pepin or another area propane provider.

Pierce Pepin Marketing and Administration Manager Chris Tackmann said more people than usual have called to set up new payment arrangements because they are unable to pay propane bills.

Tackmann said this is partially due to this winter’s frigid temperatures. He said propane prices have also gone up, largely due to the propane shortage in the Midwest.

Again, Tackmann said struggling customers should call Pierce Pepin to work out a payment plan.

“We’ll work with you and best we can or get you in touch with some sort of energy assistance,” Tackmann said.

RFMU can be reached at 715-425-0906. St. Croix Gas can be reached at 715-425-6177 and Pierce Pepin can be reached at 715-273-4355.

For more on this story, please see the March 6 print edition of the River Falls Journal.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

(715) 426-1048