STOCKTON — When 60-year-old Floria Ford fell behind on her Pacific Gas and Electric Co. payments last year, her debt quickly snowballed.
At one point she owed $1,024. She says the utility agreed to a payment plan to resolve that debt. But she fell behind again, to the point where the power to her north Stockton duplex was disconnected for three days in May.
Ford, a former food service employee who says she can no longer work because of her arthritis, borrowed money from a loan shark to turn the power back on. But she’s still in debt. Until November, she says, she’ll be required to pay $247 a month on top of her regular monthly usage in order to catch up.
That’ll bring her utility costs to more than $300 per month, or about one-third of her income from supplemental Social Security.
She doesn’t know how she’ll pay. But she knows she has to.
“If you don’t pay it you’re just out of service,” she said. “And you can’t be out of service. They got you. There’s nothing you can do.”
One thing she will do is attend hearings of the state Public Utilities Commission in Stockton on Tuesday, where residents will have a chance to share their experiences with PG&E and provide comments on potential upcoming rate increases. It’s a somewhat unusual opportunity in this city to speak directly to the entity that regulates PG&E, as well as PG&E itself.
Two meetings are scheduled at the the state building, 31 E. Channel St. in downtown Stockton. One session begins at 2 p.m. and the other at 6 p.m.
“We really do want to be there. We do want to hear from our customers,” PG&E spokesman Donald Cutler said. “It’s about allowing the public to have an official voice within something that will have an impact on them.”
It’s still unclear exactly how much rates might be going up, Cutler said. The utility is in settlement discussions now.
He acknowledged that there are “a lot of really tough situations out there” and said PG&E is trying to best balance safety with affordability. The utility offers discounts of 20 percent or more to lower-income residents like Ford, and power is disconnected only after a long process, Cutler said.
“It’s not like, ‘Hey, you didn’t pay your bill, your lights are going off,’ ” he said.
But one Stockton-based nonprofit, Fathers & Families of San Joaquin, says there is room for improvement in how PG&E handles these cases. The group plans to attend Tuesday’s hearing with Ford and others who have similar stories.
Fathers & Families has spent about a year advocating for lower-income residents, often people of color, who are struggling to pay their PG&E bills. The group says it has helped at least 30 local families so far.
And they’ve heard some sad stories: People forced to choose between medicine and power, people who have lost their jobs and seen their utility bills quickly stack up, people who face eviction or could lose their children if their power is turned off.
“Electricity is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity to live,” said Gilbert Martinez, health department manager with Fathers & Families. “We really just want to protect our community members and show the human side of this issue.”
Stockton is especially vulnerable, with high levels of poverty and a scorching-hot climate. Ford said she avoided using her air conditioner this summer, leaving her front door open instead.
“It was terrible,” she said.
Among other things, Fathers & Families wants PG&E to allow payment plans to be spread over longer periods of time, which could make them more affordable in a case like Ford’s and reduce the number of disconnections.
Cutler said payment plans are decided on a case-by-case basis.
“If you call in and need help we’re going to try to find a way to make that work,” he said.
The number of utility disconnections is apparently on the rise in California, despite an improved economy, according to an analysis of a bill that cleared the state Senate last month. This may be because of the end of Great Recession-era assistance policies, the deployment of smart meters, which makes it easier to disconnect service, and the meager savings that many residents have to cover sudden expenses.
The analysis cites advocacy group The Utility Reform Network reporting that the number of residential disconnections went from 547,000 in 2010 to 816,000 in 2015.
Senate Bill 598 would require the state to attempt to reverse that trend and would also prohibit utilities from disconnecting service for customers with medical conditions whose lives could be at risk if their power is cut off and they lose access to equipment they need.
In her effort not to fall behind on her PG&E bill earlier this year, Ford fell behind on her rent instead. She says she’s skimped on food, and she has suspended a $70-per-month life and burial insurance policy that is intended to help her grandchildren if she dies.
If Ford can make $300-plus monthly PG&E payments until November, she’ll finally be caught up.
“I’m gonna have to,” she said. “I don’t have another choice.