PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- As home energy costs continue to rise, Attorney General Josh Shapiro introduced Pennsylvania's new consumer advocate at a roundtable in Bethel Park on Friday afternoon.
It will be Patrick Cicero's job to represent consumers on energy and utility issues before the Public Utility Commission, at the end of a year where home heating costs have risen by more than 10 percent.
"Whenever that electric company, Duquesne Light, West Penn Power, Penelec, Columbia Gas, or Pennsylvania American Water comes into the PUC to ask for rate increases, the consumer advocate is there to protect the interest of the consumers," Cicero told KDKA on Friday.
The Public Utility Commission doesn't always listen, but Columbia Gas asked for a 20-percent revenue hike. On Thursday, the PUC granted Columbia a 12-percent hike, and Duquesne Light got a rate hike of just over 4 percent, instead of the nearly 8 percent it had requested.
Cicero, who just took office on Monday, said his office argued for lower rates plus more help for those struggling to pay bills.
"There were adequate, additional, low-income programs and funding for additional programs in both the Columbia and Duquesne Light service territories," he said.
Helping those who cannot pay the higher utility costs was part of a roundtable in Bethel Park at Lifespan, hosted by Shapiro with the new consumer advocate.
"Every single person in this good community has a voice when the big guys come in and try to raise rates or reduce services," Shapiro said. "That person who is going to be standing there advocating for you every step of the way is not just the attorney general, but also a new consumer advocate taking care of Pennsylvania."
WATCH: KDKA's Jon Delano reports
Utility companies are required to have programs to help consumers pay their bills, and there is always LIHEAP – the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, whic, based on income, can help pay the bills for many single parents and families – offering a cash grant of up to $1,500.
The place to start, says everyone, is your utility company.
"We have been saying time and time again that you call your utilities now," PUC chair Gladys Dutrieuille said. "That direct conversation between the customer and the utility is the best first step in terms of getting help."
Shapiro said the consumer advocate is key to help consumers.
"The Office of Consumer Advocate's important work on public utilities directly impacts the lives of every day Pennsylvanians, especially seniors," he said.
Added Cicero: "We understand that the need is very, very real for this kind work. Right now, as the general mentioned, energy costs are supposed to skyrocket this winter."
KDKA asked Cicero about programs to help consumers cope with high utility bills.
"There are a number of assistance programs available, but the gas company and the electric company are statutorily required to have customer assistance programs available," Cicero said.
Cicero said 1 million Pennsylvanians already qualify for these kinds of programs, but they need to call their utility company to get this company-sponsored relief, and he noted the three component parts of LIHEAP.
"A cash grant component, which this year households can get up to $1,500 in a cash grant," he said. "A crisis grant component, which is for folks who are facing a utility shut-off and a weatherization component."
That weatherization component could pay to repair or replace a broken furnace – the programs depend on your income – and everyone says to start by calling your utility company, but "I'd urge any consumer who is struggling to contact my office, the Office of Consumer Advocate," Cicero said.
Click here to visit the website of the Officer of the Consumer Advocate.
If you make less than 250 percent of the federal poverty rate – that's around $66,250 for a family of four – your utility service cannot be shut off during the winter.
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