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Power disconnections steady, abandoned homes up

Is a slowing economy having an impact in Farmington? If you use residents paying their power bills as a gauge,the answer is yes. Or no.

It kind of depends on where you look and how you interpret the information.

According to Pat Boland, manager of credit policy and compliance for Xcel Energy, the power company, which was allowed to start disconnecting delinquent customers on April 16, has cut off power to about 10 percent fewer homes this year than at the same time last year. Dakota Electric had disconnected 894 customers as of May 28, which billing manager Sheri Wutschke said is comparable to last year's numbers.

Wutschke said there was a bigger increase last year in the number of residents who couldn't pay their power bills. She blamed that in part on a change in company policy that cut off customers after two months without payment rather than three.

"I think we've seen a bit of an increase, but it's not remarkable for the month of April," Wutschke said. "The cold weather rule goes off on April 15, so we start disconnecting right away on April 16."

Power companies cannot disconnect customers during the winter and they can't disconnect on extremely hot days.

Boland said Xcel typically disconnects about 2.9 percent of its customers each year for failure to make payments.

"We haven't seen a real significant variation over the years," Boland said. "A lot of it just comes down to, what kind of summer are we having?"

The relatively steady number of power cutoffs could be a sign the slowing economy has yet to hit Farmington residents hard enough they can't pay their utility bills. But there are other potential explanations. Boland said Xcel started to get a lot of big payments from past-due customers around the time the government started sending out economic stimulus checks. Though he has no solid proof, he believes those checks helped a lot of people set the lights on.

Dakota Electric communication specialist Joe Miller said the electrical co-op doesn't take disconnections lightly. But he said allowing people to get further into debt makes it harder for them to get back to even and puts an increasing burden on other customers.

Dakota Electric writes off some money each year as uncollectable. Miller said that figure has grown steadily in recent years. The company wrote off $600,000 in 2006 and $550,000 in 2005.

"I don't know when the trend really started," Miller said.

Dakota Electric encourages customers to donate to a Helping Neighbors fund that is dedicated to helping people in need pay their electric bills. That money is distributed through groups such as the Community Action Council and the CAP Agency. A CAC representative said only four Farmington residents, and 49 people in all, took advantage of the money last year.

There are other signs, though, that local residents are struggling. Wutschke said Dakota Electric crews are seeing more and more abandoned homes when they go to cut off power. Crews find untended yards and empty homes.

Wutschke doesn't have an exact count on the number of abandoned homes, but she said it's enough crews have started commenting on it. She said there's been a big increase since January.

"A lot of times they just walk away without any notification," Wutschke said. "You're not seeing it just in the low-income areas. You're actually seeing it in the higher-end houses."