Rhihannon Gonzales, a single, low-income mother of a newborn says even though she paid her gas bill, Long Beach Gas and Oil turned off service to her
Rhihannon Gonzales, a single, low-income mother of a newborn says even though she paid her gas bill, Long Beach Gas and Oil turned off service to her apartment before the holidays, forcing her family to suffer without heat through the cold holiday season (Brittany Murray / Staff Phototgrapher)
LONG BEACH -- The first sound you hear upon entering the apartment of Rhiannon Gonzales is the wheeze and gurgle of the humidifier that runs day and night in the kitchen.

The next thing you hear is the wheeze and gurgle of Elgin Clowney, Gonzales' baby boy.

Whenever Clowney awakens, his cries fill the room. The boy's nasal congestion makes breathing hard for him and terrifies his exhausted mother.

Gonzales said this is the way it has been with her child since the gas was turned off at her apartment in mid-December and remained off until Dec. 30. And even though she has had heat for the past couple of weeks, her son is still suffering.

Gonzales' story is not unique. Of the 135,000 customers serviced by Long Beach Gas and Oil, 10,000 receive shutoff notices each month and about 1,000 are actually disconnected.

According to a 2010 report given to the California Public Utilities Commission, nearly 70,000 households across California have their utility or gas service disconnected every month.

Unlike other states in colder climates, California does not have laws that prevent a utility from disconnecting a customer, even in winter and times of extreme cold. It also has no special exemptions for the elderly, people with medical conditions or families with newborn or infant children.

As the Southland goes through another spate of unusually cold weather, the plight worsens for those without utilities.

The state's Public Utilities Commission has placed a number of conditions on public utilities before they disconnect customers, and price reductions and payment plans are available to the poor or infirm. But municipal utilities such as Long Beach Gas aren't subject to the same conditions.

LB Gas independent

Long Beach Gas is also a rare utility in that it does not have a board of supervisors, reporting only to the city manager's office.

Long Beach Gas and Oil Director Chris Garner said the local utility is "compassionate." He ordered Gonzales' service restored immediately upon learning of her plight and is working directly with the woman to help her create a payment plan.

But, he said, he was under no obligation to do so.

His assurances have also done little to mollify the unemployed single mother of two.

On Friday, although Gonzales received help through the Long Beach Community Partnership and its Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, she said she received yet another disconnect notice and a bill for $260, which she can't pay.

Garner said although Gonzales' has a voucher that can be used toward her gas use bill, she still owes for refuse collection, taxes and certain fees that can be spread out on a payment plan, which he will discuss with her.

Southern California Edison says it has a policy not to disconnect utilities during the holidays, and Garner said his organization informally reduces disconnections in winter.

John Edmond, chief of staff for Long Beach City Councilman Dee Andrews, said his office regularly receives calls from people in danger of losing services. Although he said the office tries to intercede, it has no ability to reduce the amount a resident owes the utility.

He added that because residents consider utilities vital, it is often one of the last necessities they will go without - and chances are they have many other hardships.

"By the time they come to us, they're pretty much on the way out (of their home,)" Edmond said.

Gonzales is not without fault. She did not pay her gas bills on time, although she said she made two partial payments.

Making contact key

Most important, however, according to utility officials and advocates alike, her biggest fault was not contacting the utility immediately to discuss her plight and attempt to work out a payment plan.

Garner said Gonzales opened her account in late September and it wasn't until nearly three months later that her services were disconnected. 

Problems arise he said, "when we're not called at all and you've avoided contact."

Ana Montes, organizing director for The Utility Reform Network, which advocates for consumers, agrees that communication is the most important step when a customer has trouble paying bills.

Montes added ignoring warnings "is the worst thing you can do, because then the utility won't work (with you), or has an excuse not to work with you."

Linda Yamauchi, director of consumer affairs for Southern California Edison, said her company has myriad programs to help customers pay for utilities.

But she added, "the very first thing, as soon as you know you're behind, is to contact us."

She added that once services are disconnected, those fees cannot legally be waived.

Many Californians don't know their rights, Montes said, so they don't act.

Many are immobilized by the staggering fees that can be tacked on to their usage. Within three months, Gonzales' gas and refuse bill had jumped to about $300, including setup and disconnect fees, although her usage was about one third of that.

California public utilities are required to offer payment plans to those facing shutoffs, but Montes said "not every utility tells people that."

Because Long Beach Gas is a municipal utility, it is not under the same guidelines. Garner said when customers fall behind in payments, "what routinely happens is we'll work out a payment plan."

Gonzales said she was only told she had to pay the entire bill in person at City Hall. She said she made two $45 cash payments at grocery store satellite offices, although the gas company said it received just one.

Montes said many customers informally make partial payments, and for some that can forestall shutoffs.

However, she said such plans are no guarantee services will be maintained, and utilities are less inclined to accept them in lieu of disconnection.

Resources for help

When shutoff was imminent, Gonzales said she frantically called to attempt to set up a payment plan, but was unsuccessful. She said she even showed one of her faded payment receipts to the worker who disconnected her service.

Garner said he only learned of Gonzales' plight and her newborn in late December and immediately ordered a crew to reconnect her services.

To provide better customer service, Garner said the company recently took local control of its call center, and is educating employees on helping customers.

"We're trying to change the culture at the call center," he said, adding that he wants those receiving calls to have more latitude in helping customers who are in danger of losing services.

Long Beach Gas and Oil does have a program for qualifying low-income households that provides a 5 percent reduction in monthly bills.

There are also charities, such as the Community Action Partnership, Catholic Charities, the United Way, Salvation Army and others, that help with utility payments for low-income families. Information is available by calling 211.

Montes said when citizens are unhappy with their municipal utilities, "the community needs to vote and revolt." However, since there is no public oversight of Long Beach Gas and Oil, that is unlikely to happen in Long Beach.

Meanwhile, the late payment of utilities is only one of many problems Gonzales faces. She is behind on her rent and fears losing her apartment.

Gonzales said before she moved to Long Beach, she had been met with one setback after another. She said she doesn't know how other unemployed people make ends meet.

"I'm trying, I don't know where to go," she said as her son began to stir and fuss.

As Elgin began to cry, Gonzales seemed to lose her concentration.

"I'm so mad and disgusted. ... I'm to the point where I don't care," she said. "I wonder what else can go on and now my phone is going out. I just want to get through all this."


greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-714-2093, twitter.com/gregmellen