Bill Lesch would like to know how many people in the Madison area are living without electricity and heat. He wonders because he's been there himself.
"I paid MGE for 33 years, and all of a sudden I run into a little bit of trouble, and I'm persona non grata," says Lesch, a former truck driver who lives in an apartment in Monona.
The little bit of trouble, he says, was getting seriously ill and then losing his job. His utility bills piled up to where they topped $1,500; his service, he says, was disconnected last May. He got a new job for several months and was able to pay down what he owed, but not completely. Last week he got an eviction notice, after being warned by his landlord that he could not continue to live in an apartment that was off the grid.
Steve Kraus, MGE spokesman, notes that state law prohibits utilities from cutting off power between Nov. 1 and April 15. But it is under no obligation to resume service to customers disconnected before then who don't settle up.
This year, MGE disconnected about 5,200 customers, up from 4,400 in 2007. "We have about 140,000 electric customers," says Kraus, putting these numbers in perspective.
For customers who are disconnected, Kraus says MGE follows a series of steps as the moratorium period approaches. First, it attempts to make phone contact; then it sends letters to customers and, for rental properties, landlords; finally, it sends employees to individual residences, attempting to make contact.
As of last week, about a month into the moratorium, Kraus says about 200 area residences remained disconnected. Some are presumably unoccupied, and MGE gives state regulators and human service agencies a list of people it believes may be still disconnected.
Lesch says he's been in regular contact with MGE about his bills, and was visited at home by one of its employees. Last Friday, thanks to Energy Services Inc. and a family member, he was able to pay down his bill enough to get MGE to restore service. "I did have to promise my income tax return and all that," he says.
But he still owes MGE a little more than $500 - which, if not taken care of by April 15, could mean lights out again. Also, his landlord is still trying to evict him.