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More and more people are finding themselves living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region. In some places, rent has doubled. The cost of everyday goods — like gas and groceries — keeps creeping up. All the while, wages lag behind and the affordable housing crisis looms. Amid cost-of-living increases, WUSF is focused on documenting how people are making ends meet.

As electricity costs surge, more Hillsborough residents are struggling to keep their lights on

TECO's  Big Bend Power Station
Google Maps
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TECO Energy, located at 701 N. Franklin St., is the primary electricity provider for residents in Hillsborough County.

Electricity costs increased nationally for the fourth consecutive month in August, according to the Consumer Price Index released on Tuesday.

The cost of electricity increased for the fourth consecutive month in August, marking the largest year-over-year price jump since 1981, according to the Consumer Price Index released on Tuesday.

Electric companies in Florida this month asked to increase customers' monthly electric bills in 2023 to offset the cost of natural gas.

Meanwhile, in the greater Tampa Bay region, there's evidence that more people are having problems paying their electric bills as prices surge.

Hillsborough County Social Services manager James Girard said he has seen demand for assistance to cover home energy costs climb.

His office distributes the county’s share of federal funds through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The program, administered by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, offers income-based assistance to reduce home energy costs.

For a qualifying individual or household, the county’s social services department communicates directly with an electricity provider, like TECO, to either reduce electricity costs or cover an outstanding bill to restore connection.

LIHEAP guidelines
Courtesy of Hillsborough County Social Services
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Matrix of income guidelines show parameters to qualify for home energy cost assistance through LIHEAP.

“We’ve definitely run across households and families that have been out anywhere from several days to several weeks – that we’ve been able to reconnect,” Girard said.

On average, he said county residents seeking electricity-cost assistance pay around $200 a month to keep the lights on, and sometimes, between $300 and $400.

Girard said that the county’s aging population and those who live on a fixed income are squeezed the most by unaffordable home energy costs.

“We hear it all the time, especially with the elderly population, that they have to make a decision: Am I going to pay my electric, or get my medicine this month?”

In July, nearly 87 percent of qualifying households had school-aged children, adults over 60 or people with disabilities, according to department data.

For some residents, he said restoring power can be life-saving.

When TECO cut power to the home of Anna, 55, and David, 75, in August for past-due payments, Anna feared for her husband’s health. He was diagnosed with throat and neck cancer last year. The couple asked to be identified by their middle names in order to protect their medical privacy.

“We should have never sat in a hot house for two and a half days with me worried about his (oxygen) levels,” she said.

In addition to losing around $500 worth of food and four pens of insulin, which require refrigeration, Anna said they lost power to her husband’s oxygen concentration machine.

After being connected with the energy assistance program, they received $800 in assistance to cover outstanding bills and fees to restore their connection.

When demand for services swelled last month, Girard said his office became backlogged with callers, scheduling appointments to establish eligibility as far as three weeks out.

“Now, it’s a challenge to get through because the demand is so high,” he said.

During a Sept. 8 meeting, Hillsborough County accepted additional funds for the energy assistance program. The money is expected to last through March 31 and help an additional 3,000 low-income, eligible residents.

In the meantime, Girard encourages residents in need of immediate assistance to call the Tampa Bay Crisis Center at 2-1-1.

I tell stories about living paycheck to paycheck for public radio at WUSF News. I’m also a corps member of Report For America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
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