Soaring energy bills are eating deeply
into the budgets of schools, hospitals, churches and homeless
shelters across the country, forcing them to look for increasingly
hard-to-find ways to tighten their belts.
"It will come out of the hides, so to speak, of the kids,"
says Don Tharpe of the Association of School Business Officials.
Unlike businesses, he notes, schools can't raise the prices on
their product to make up for higher costs.
Many hospitals need to pass their heating costs along to
patients, although that's not always possible because hospitals get
fixed reimbursements from Medicaid and Medicare for many patients,
said George Quinn, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Health and
"If your costs go above what you budgeted, you aren't able to
recoup that from government payers, so there will be some passing
along to patients who can pay," he said. "It has to come from
Gas companies blame the prices they are charging on the cost of
wholesale natural gas, which has quadrupled over the last year.
High demand intensified by cold weather has contributed to the
problem. The leap in natural gas prices coupled with a shortage of
hydroelectric power in the Northwest also has contributed to
California's energy crisis.
The high price of energy doesn't leave much to go around for
"Just today, someone told me a chair broke, but we're not going
to go out and buy another chair. We just can't be spending money on
things like that," said David Williams, operations director at the
Michigan Humane Society, whose cost to keep animal shelters warm is
approaching $4,600 a month.
There are blankets on the pews for worshippers at Dimondale
United Methodist Church near Lansing. Like many churches, Dimondale
heats the sanctuary only for services. But it still pays $600 per
month for heat, Pastor Lillian French said.
"That's $600 out of an already tight ministry," she said.
Lansing's Sparrow Hospital will spend an estimated $140,805 on
January's heating bill, up from $32,940 in January 2000,
spokeswoman Lorri Rishar said.
The hospital has few ways to trim that bill, Rishar says.
Specialized areas such as nurseries must be kept at higher
temperatures, for example.
So far, the hospital is absorbing the cost with emergency funds
and hasn't had to pass it along to patients, Rishar says.
"We're just hoping it warms up the rest of the winter," she
Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis paid $71,000 for
natural gas heat last January, said Bob Hallman, maintenance
manager for the 580-bed hospital. This January, he said, the
hospital switched to its backup oil heating system and saved about
$120,000 but will still pay nearly $140,000 for heat.
"I don't know that anybody saw it coming. I certainly didn't
budget for these types of dollars," Hallman said.
Schools also need to maintain a warm environment.
Just north of the Colorado-New Mexico state line, Trinidad's
School District 1 says it may have to cut student programs. This
winter's heating bills are $25,000 to $30,000 higher per month than
the budget for the 1,600-student district allowed, Superintendent
David VanSant said.
Many homeless shelters in Massachusetts are limiting food and
other basic provisions because heating costs are so high, said
Philip Mangano, executive director of the 75-member Massachusetts
Housing and Shelter Alliance.
Heat just isn't one of the things that can be sacrificed,
"For very vulnerable people, the feeling of safety and security
is often tied up with the notion of warmth," he said. "Keeping
the environment warm for the temporarily lodged is a very important
part of the service that's provided."
Sister Connie Driscoll knows that all too well. She leads the
Chicago Task Force on Homelessness and runs a shelter for 120 women
and children on the city's South Side. She has paid a fixed price
for heat under an agreement with her local parish, but already has
been warned that the price will skyrocket when she renegotiates
"We're all sitting on pins and needles wondering what's going
to hit us," she said.