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The heat is on 

Gov. Owens seeking help with heating bills

Last month, senators adjourned for the holidays but decided not to approve a $2 billion emergency relief measure meant to keep heat flowing to families that cannot afford skyrocketing utility bills.

Their decision, which came as record numbers of Americans, including 105,000 poor families in Colorado, lined up for assistance, left Gov. Bill Owens begging the state Legislature and Congress for help he hopes is on the way.

"If they were not to act, it would be devastating," says Dan Hopkins, a spokesman for Owens.

About a week ago, Owens released a plan asking Colorado lawmakers to find $20 million -- twice what was spent last year -- assisting the poor. The alternative would be to watch thousands of people choose between food and heat, he told reporters.

The average price increase of natural gas alone this winter is 37 percent across the nation.

Successful hedging at Colorado Springs Utilities has kept natural gas price increases this year to just 6 percent. But as compared to 2001, residential utility bills are up by 29 percent, to $187 a month.

In the last year, the number of households participating in a utility charity program, Citizens Option to Provide Energy, or COPE, has risen nearly 10 percent: In 2005, 2,322 homes received assistance, versus 2,115 in 2004.

But utility spokesman Steve Berry says the city program is no replacement for the state's Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, or LEAP, which the governor is trying to salvage.

"We can't expect that our COPE program can make up any expected deficits," he says.

Already, city utility disconnections for nonpaying customers appear to be rising. If the month of December, which hasn't yet been tallied by officials, holds to an 11-month average, roughly 9,930 disconnections would have taken place in 2005, after 9,175 in 2004.

Owens has infused LEAP with $2.4 million to keep it afloat. He wants the Legislature to allocate another $7.6 million when the 2006 session begins Jan. 11.

The request is a record amount. It is unclear what will happen, although the money would come from mining severance taxes, which in the past have been used to help poor people pay their winter utility bills.

Ideally, a typical family would receive $500 this winter, Hopkins says. Last year, a family received about $300.

Owens also has asked U.S. Sens. Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar to work toward passing a relief package that would grant Colorado $30 million. Without that money, LEAP will struggle to help families this winter, Hopkins says. Still, he is fairly confident that the worst won't come to pass.

"There's pressure across the nation," Hopkins says. "This situation is not unique to Colorado."

-- Michael de Yoanna

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