On Dec. 17, the Garfield Park Community Council and the Citizens Utility Board held a virtual forum letting residents know about resources that can help them pay their utility bills, a particularly important topic now that winter has set in. 

The Citizens Utility Board is a nonprofit that was established by the Illinois General Assembly in 1984 to serve as consumer advocates.  

Although Illinois has placed a moratorium on disconnections, Aimee Gendusa-English, the Utility Board’s lead service liaison, explained that, as soon as the moratorium is lifted, the utility companies will first go after the customers who haven’t paid anything on their bills and recommended that customers try to pay as much on their bills as they can.  

“If they haven’t gotten any payments, if they haven’t gotten any calls, you’re going to be on the top of the list for disconnections [once the moratorium is over],” Gendusa-English said. “It’s what they do. They go after no-pays first.”

Gendusa-English added that, once the moratorium ends, energy company’s repayment plans may not be as generous as they are now.

Gendusa-English suggested that residents who need help with their energy bills apply for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a federal program administered by the states. The program provides emergency financial assistance to low-income residents who need help paying bills. In response to the pandemic, the program’s income limits have been temporarily raised and the state is allowing residents to start applying online. 

The tricky part about the process, Gendusa-English explained, is that while the state handles the pre-applications, it contracts with local administering agencies to help distribute the funds. 

For Cook County, that local administering agency is the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County (CEDA), a nonprofit organization. The state website warns that, due to greater need during the pandemic, wait times are longer than usual. 

The application requires proof of income, which means that some applicants may be required to submit more documents than others, Gendusa-English said, adding that while the utility companies set up bill payment assistance programs of their own in response to the pandemic, many of them require customers successfully apply for LIHEAP first. 

If there are any issues with the utility companies, Gendusa-English recommended calling the Illinois Commerce Commission at (800) 524-0795. They can also call the Citizen Utility Board’s help line at (800) 669-5556. One thing she would not advise is calling 3-1, saying that they would probably direct callers to the state or CEDA, anyway.