Utility hikes and cold weather taking toll on fixed income households


This story first appeared in The Mountaineer

For more than a decade in her previous hometown, Kim Hammon, now of Jonathan Creek, operated a non-profit called “Street Angels” that helped seniors, veterans and single mothers who were in dire straits. Her organization assisted thousands of people through the unexpected emergencies of life.

Recently, Hammon found herself on the other side of the equation.

When her utility bill came in nearly double its previous high and she faced a potential cutoff, the retired teacher needed help.

“Social security isn’t a whole lot,” she says. “I have to budget my money.”

Like many, Hammon spends times of frigid weather in extra layers of clothing or at a relatives’ house. She keeps the heat warm enough to protect the pipes, and that’s about it. But also like others, she has seen her bill double – or more.

“When I got my utility bill I immediately thought ‘this isn’t mine’,” she said.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission approved a 7.7% rate increase that began last month, and increases will continue in 2025 and 2026 as energy providers work to transition to low-carbon energy sources. But Hammon’s electricity provider, Haywood EMC, told her that their rate hike was 18%. She was also told that payment options were limited.

“I said ‘are you kidding me?’” Hammon said. “I don’t know what will happen for people who live on less. It’s just shocking to be in this situation. They’ll shut you off, and I mean right now.”

Local social services agencies are stretched thin, and many people on fixed incomes, like Hammon, don’t fall into an income pool that would qualify them for help from the Department of Social Services. A recent study by the Federal Reserve entitled Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households found that more than one-fourth of American adults had one or more bills that they were unable to pay in full in a given month, or were one $400 financial setback away from being unable to pay them. 

That’s where organizations like Mountain Projects come in. Mountain Projects operates a “Winter Warmth” discretionary fund, maintained through community donations.

Mountain Projects Executive Director Patsy Davis says Hammon is an example of the type of emergency her community action agency often helps.

“Some of us can deal with price spikes,” said Davis. “And there are some resources for people with very low income. But people with fixed incomes, particularly seniors and the disabled are stuck. When the tulips start blooming these people will still be struggling. The early spring is a time we see disconnects go up.”


Marla Wengyn is in the same boat as Hammonds. Wengyn, 58, lost her husband a few years back and lives with her special needs brother Charles “Big Mac” Hughes, 64. 

Wengyn has a twenty-year-old massage therapy business, but can’t work the same hours as in the past because of her age. 

Their house is small – 1,600 sq. ft. – and she keeps the thermostat low. They have few appliances. Still she says their power bills more than doubled this winter. Their bill for a relatively mild December exceeded $400, which left her puzzled.

“I try to use good judgment. Our thermostat stays at 64, and we wear thermal underwear,” Wengyn says. “No one is on oxygen. We cut back between 4pm and 8pm, when electricity is most expensive, but nothing seems to help. I open up the bill and it is very discouraging. It’s really frustrating.”

She reached out to the utility provider for an inspection, which was provided, but didn’t produce much she could change. She applied for a funded program through another organization to seal her crawl space, but her income exceeded their limit.

“I’m providing for us, but it’s getting scary,” she says.“ Is there a limit to what they can charge us? I can see that coming down the road. Do I eat or do I pay for my electricity? I feel for everyone in this situation.”


When Amy Roberts’ husband passed away, she moved from the Waynesville home they’d shared for 37 years to a 400 sq. ft. tiny home in Jonathan Creek. She’s a retiree on a fixed income, and her move was complicated by a bad fall in which she suffered a broken neck.

Her home is relatively new, and her habits are frugal, but recent power bills have tipped the scale for her.

“They told me my usage had gone up 171%,” Roberts says. “Realize now, I live in 400 square feet. I’m trying to cut back on my usage, and we’ve had a little better weather, but it’s really hard.”

Last year, Roberts says, her bills were in the $80 range, but a recent bill reached over $200.

When she called to ask about a payment plan, Haywood EMC representatives referred her to DSS, but, like others, her year-round income exceeded their limit.


There are common themes between the stories of Hammon, Wengyn and Roberts: they say local utility representatives are polite, but inflexible. And they say that drastic energy bill increases are the talk of the town. Also, Mountain Projects was able to help them all.

“I wouldn’t be in this house right now if it wasn’t for Mountain Projects,” Hammon says.

She remembers her work in the non-profit realm: “We helped to cover many expenses for people, and I understand the whole cycle of how this happens. The utilities and the groceries – it’s just startling and shocking to see that you can’t make ends meet. Mountain Projects was a Godsend for me and so are the donors who make emergency help possible. It’s just a miracle that people care. Tears were rolling down my face. I didn’t know what to do.”

But Davis says the organization’s pool of resources is limited. Most of its overall budget comes from grants, and those funds are restricted to specific programs.

“We can’t access restricted funds to support utility assistance or emergency funds requests,” Davis says. “That’s why we reach out to the community.”

Mountain Projects isn’t the only non-profit organization in Haywood County to help with these types of scenarios, but have received at least 100 calls for emergency assistance since the recent cold weather.  

“Low to middle income people are often living paycheck-to-paycheck and they are one high utility bill away from choosing between food and medicine. Rent, food and utility bills are so high these days. We appreciate donations to help community members bridge these situations. You just can’t let people go without heat in the winter,” says Davis.