By Valerie Baldowski
Southern Crescent residents, struggling to pay their gas bills during the cold winter months, can get some relief through Gas South's "Pay-As-You-Go" program, according to United Way officials.
The program began in 2008, and is offered throughout the year, to help "credit-challenged" customers pay for natural gas service, said Mike Mullet, a public relations spokesman for Gas South.
There are 9,688 Gas South customers in Henry County, and 411 of them are on the "Pay-As-You-Go" Program. Clayton County has 9,792 Gas South customers, 949 of whom are on the program, said Mullet. He said one of the advantages of the program is that it requires no deposit, potentially saving customers hundreds of dollars.
Several local organizations are working to ensure that residents have gas service during the current national economic downturn. The United Way endorses the "Pay-As-You-Go" program, said Lynda Smith, Metropolitan Atlanta area director for the agency.
"It is very beneficial, primarily for those folks who, for whatever reason, have limited resources, but have to come up with a deposit," said Smith. "Sometimes, folks who are moving into a community, or if they've had their utilities disconnected, even if they're able to pay the past due amount, they then have to come up with another deposit, which is very difficult."
From January to the present, Samaritans Together of Henry County, Inc., has provided 166 families in Henry County with financial assistance in paying their rent, mortgage and utilities, said Lori Miller, executive director of the organization. Of those 166 families, Miller said two-thirds of the requests for help she received were for utility assistance.
Samaritans Together is an ecumenical, non-profit organization providing emergency help to Henry residents on a weekly or monthly basis.
Another agency reaching out to people in need is the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Cicely Garrett, a coordinator for the food bank, said her agency is working to provide economic support for residents outside of their regular wages by distributing brochures about the advantages of the Gas South program.
The "Pay-As-You-Go" program avoids large gas bills, which many people cannot pay or have not planned for in their budget, added Garrett. "It makes a huge difference, it eliminates a lot of the unknowns [extra charges and hidden fees] that comes with the traditional gas service accounts," she explained.
The Pay-As-You-Go program is timely, when customers need to turn on their furnace when the weather cools off, said Kevin Greiner, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Gas South. It helps customers build, or re-build, their credit, Greiner said. After 12 months of good payments, customers are offered the opportunity to switch to a standard Gas South plan with more affordable rates, he said.
"We recognized that, historically, credit-challenged consumers have been underserved by natural gas providers, and we developed Pay-As-You-Go to offer a valuable option," continued Greiner. "The fact that the program requires no deposit, and offers competitive rates, continues to be very important for customers who also may have had difficulty qualifying for service, or are required to pay a large deposit by other providers."
The value of Pay-As-You-Go is also recognized by local community-service agencies, because it allows the agencies to maximize their home utility assistance dollars while also helping to lower the out-of-pocket costs for consumers, he said.
Agencies including CredAbility (formerly Consumer Credit Counseling Service), the Salvation Army, United Way, Society of St. Vincent DePaul, and the Atlanta Community Food Bank, have partnered with Gas South to raise awareness of the Pay-As-You-Go program among the communities they serve, added Greiner.