Protest Power: Downtown March Against High Electric Rates

Dozens of members of a local community organization say they're sick and tired of high electric bills and are taking their concerns directly to the source, the downtown offices of Reliant Energy. But as Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, the company says it's already doing all it can to lessen the burden of high electric rates.

Click to Listen

On the 23rd floor of the Reliant Building in the heart of downtown, members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN, demanded to speak with Reliant CEO Joel Staff. Elderly and low income residents like Imelda Benson say they're barely able to pay their electric bills.

"I live alone, me and a dog. It's impossible for me to use $500 worth of electricity in a month."

Benson is retired, but says she's taken an extra job as a school crossing guard to make ends meet.

"Folks like me that have worked all of their lives, raised seven children, made my positive contribution to society, I'm 74 years old and I can't even have a decent life. I can't pay my bills without scrimping and scraping and not doing. This is supposed to be my golden years, but they're not."

The protesters are demanding more discount programs for low income and older customers, a lower "price to beat" rate and a moratorium on summer electric shut-offs for people who fall behind on bills. Reliant's Pat Hammond says the company is doing what it can to alleviate the burden of high electric bills.

"We have been in communication with them one-on-one, trying to work through some of the issues that we can address with them and take care of the people that they bring to our attention. If we have a low income customer who's facing disconnection, they have special circumstances, medical needs, we're going to work with those customers. We're also going to offer them payment plans and do everything that we possibly can to try and help them through difficult times."

Over the past two years, more than $200 million collected as a monthly 65-cent "System Benefit Fund" charge to help low income Texans pay their electric bills has been swept into the general fund and spent elsewhere. State Representative Sylvester Turner of Houston is proposing a bill in the upcoming special legislative session that would force the state to use that money for its intended purpose.

"It is a stealth tax and people are paying for it. It is being assessed for one purpose but is being used for another and the people who are suffering as a result are your low income people, your senior citizens, people who are medically needy. They're not receiving that 10-20 percent discount."

Reliant Energy is introducing a new program April 1st for qualified low-income customers that will reduce rates by 5-percent for a limited time.

Bio photo of Jack Williams

Jack Williams

Director of News Programming

News Director Jack Williams has been with Houston Public Radio since August of 2000. He's also a reporter and anchor for Houston Public Radio's local All Things Considered segments...