Higher CPS bill will add to families' struggles

October 12, 2009

Scott Stroud
San Antonio Express-News

Norma and George Ovalle aren't deadbeats.

Hit hard by the recession, they keep struggling. They borrow from family when they have to and help family when they can.

They are exactly the kind of people that COPS/Metro Alliance had in mind last week when its leaders proposed expanding energy assistance and weatherization programs if San Antonio accepts CPS Energy's recommendation and invests $2.6 billion in nuclear power.

According to the state Department of Housing and Community Affairs, Texans at or below the poverty level spend 12.2 percent of their income on home energy costs - much more than people in higher income brackets.

"This is an extraordinarily regressive tax," said Vicki Tullius, a COPS/Metro co-chairwoman. "It's unjust. It's unfair."

The Ovalles, who live in an uninsulated little clapboard house on the near West Side, say they've been spending as much as a third of the $750 George brings home every other week on energy because they fell behind.

"We're so backed up, and the rates were so high this summer and it threw us off," Norma said.

Thousands of San Antonio households wage similar struggles in the current economy. If CPS increases its residential rate by 9.5 percent, as it now proposes to do, their fight will be that much harder.

"I know we're not the only one," Norma said.

As she spoke, a stack of CPS bills, including at least one pink disconnection notice, lay on a table to her right. Pink also was the color of the shirt worn by her month-old granddaughter, Zaria, who slept peacefully to Norma's left.

At a City Council meeting last week, District 5 Councilman David Medina urged CPS officials to consider expanding help for seniors and others on fixed and low incomes. They agreed to report back on those programs this week.

Roughly 32,000 residents in San Antonio receive a low-income discount from CPS, to the tune of about $1.5 million a year. Another 9,557 households were helped last year through the Residential Energy Assistance Program, a joint city, county and CPS effort.

Mayor Julián Castro said that isn't enough.

"I'm interested in seeing a multiplication of what we have in there now," he said. "If we're going to spend $2.6 billion, then a few million dollars is not going to break the bank."

None of this is an abstraction to the Ovalles, who aren't enrolled in any of the existing programs and aren't sure how to apply. Arranging late payments is hard enough.

They fell behind after Norma quit her job as a Bill Miller's cashier to become a "stay-at-home grandma." She wants her daughter, a 17-year-old teenage mother, to finish up at Lanier High School.

Norma also tries to help her other daughter and son-in-law, who was laid off for six months at USAA last year, as well as her parents, who don't speak English and need help managing their affairs.

She teared up at the suggestion that she might be overextended.

"There's times that you get a little - it's overwhelming," she said. "But knowing that I'm helping them, it makes it easier."

jstroud (at) express-news.net

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