Woman caught off guard by unpaid power bill

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 22, 2011

By Shavonne Potts
SALISBURY — Nancy Clarkson was sitting at her Salisbury home when everything went dark. She had no electricity, and it wasn’t a storm-related outage.
Unbeknownst to the 64-year-old, who uses an oxygen machine powered by electricity, her bill had not been paid in months and Duke Energy had just disconnected her.
“They drove to the side of the house and shut it off,” Clarkson said.
Clarkson thought her 26-year-old grandson, who had been living with her, was paying her utility bill.
“He told me it was paid,” she said.
But he had not been paying the bill, Clarkson said, and when he took off, he left her owing nearly $1,000 to the power company. He later called from Maryland to tell her he wasn’t returning.
Clarkson scrambled to get power so she could receive oxygen. She lives in a mobile home park and ran two 100-foot extension cords from her daughter’s home to her home. She was tapping into her daughter’s electricity for four days before service was finally restored.
Clarkson said she contacted Duke Energy to notify them she needed her electricity because she was on oxygen. They told her she needed to pay at least $600 of the bill.
“Duke Power is trying to make me responsible for a bill that is not in my name,” she said.
Clarkson said she is struggling on her own.
She has osteoporosis, is in the second stage of emphysema, and had a stint inserted after a heart attack.
Clarkson also has a thyroid disease and isn’t able to move around like she used to in her days working construction.
“When I look in the mirror, I see an 84-year-old,” Clarkson said.
It has been stressful for Clarkson, who said she made numerous phone calls to get power restored. She called local agencies including Rowan County Social Services.
Clarkson said her other grandson, Russell Proctor, has been a big help to her. So has her home health nurse, Tonya Allison, a certified nursing assistant who also made phone calls on Clarkson’s behalf.
Allison said she was at the home the day the Duke Energy employee cut the power.
Neither Allison nor Clarkson knows how service was restored. The women say they believe someone who knows Clarkson’s grandson paid it, or someone from social services enrolled Clarkson in an energy assistance program.
Clarkson maintains she did not owe Duke Energy any money.
“I told them I wouldn’t pay them. I didn’t owe them. What I owed them, I paid them,” she said.
Clarkson said she wants people to know this can happen.
“I hope somebody would stand up and listen. How many other people are putting up with the same?” she said.
Duke Energy spokeswoman Betsy Conway said she could not speak about Clarkson’s situation, but she did discuss the options customers have if this happens to them.
Duke Energy has a Medical Alert program that recognizes customers with special medical needs. Those customers receive extra notices before disconnection.
However, participation in the program doesn’t mean that a customer’s power will not be disconnected for nonpayment or interrupted due to an outage, Conway said.
“Also, when there is a major outage, participation does not mean that you will be the first to have power restored,” she said.
What this program means is “an extra level of service for these individuals,” Conway said.
And even if someone else pays the bills, Conway said, it’s important for customers with special needs to keep the account in their own name, “so that person can have control and know it’s being paid.”
If a customer gets behind on payment, he or she should call customer service and ask about issues with paying the bill.
The company can refer customers to various programs for assistance.
“The earlier you call the better,” she said.
Conway said Duke Energy tries to find a solution before a customer is disconnected.
Historically, 75 percent of customers can have power restored the same day, and about 10 percent can have it reconnected the next day.
Disconnection is a last resort, Conway said.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.