Organisations that offer financial assistance to residents of Lithgow are reporting an increase in people presenting with debts from power bills.
“More people are coming in with issues than usual,” said Yvonne Oldfield who works at the St Vincent de Paul Lithgow Centre.
“And their accounts range from $500 to $2000.”
St Vincent de Paul offers energy vouchers and also organises pay-back schemes with energy providers.
“Overall last month 89 people came in with concerns about cost of living and a percentage of those needed assistance with power bills. It may have been about half of them,” Ms Oldfield said.
Alex Ferguson, the executive director of Lifeline Central West, said outstanding power bills are now a complicating factor in almost every one of their clients’ financial situation.
“Through our financial counselling service, without exception, everybody who presents themselves to us has an outstanding power bill. It is a huge problem,” he said.
Lifeline Central West runs outreach financial counselling at Lithgow Information and Neighbourhood Centre.
“Yes, winter does accentuate the whole thing. But it’s been a trend in terms of power costs generally over the last 18 months,” Mr Ferguson said.
“We only see a financial impact. We can reasonably believe there are a lot of people going without a level of heating in a personal sense in their home. And that the bills impact on budget decisions, people deciding to go without food and go without some script medicine.”
In a Lithgow Mercury poll with 300 respondents, 30 per cent said they use heating minimally, 20 per cent said they “sometimes go cold” and 10 per cent said they cut down on other essential items to afford bills.
Mr Ferguson said the issue was “vexing” because other than resolving client debts in the short term there did not seem to be a long-term solution to offer Central Western residents.
“If your salary cake is not growing and your cost of living is increasing, at some point up the road reparations are going to have to be made,” he said.
“I’ve heard energy companies have increased their budget for bad and doubtful debts, so it’s not as if they are unaware of the impact of increased costs on the consumer,” he said.
“The issue is certainly adding to our workload in terms of the number of people coming to the service, as well as adding a new dimension to the range of issues that need to be addressed."
EnergyAustralia announced a $10 million increase in funding for customers in “long-term financial hardship” during the July 1 price hike on household electricity and gas.
Mr Ferguson said he was also concerned about the pressure energy bill increases would exert on welfare organisations like Lifeline.
“The issue is certainly adding to our workload in terms of the number of people coming to the service, as well as adding a new dimension to the range of issues that need to be addressed.
“As long as the problem continues I am at a loss to where it will go, except that more people will come to Vinnies, Sallies and here to seek some sort of relief.”