Huge financial strains caused by ballooning utility prices have made Wodonga the most vulnerable community in the state for energy or water disconnections.
A report to be released on Tuesday has revealed the number of such crisis cases is twice the Victorian average.
The startling statistic is part of the Energy and Water Ombudsman’s annual report and comes on top of the ever-increasing number of ordinary Wodonga families seeking food assistance or financial advice.
At least 30 people a day are walking through the doors of UnitingCare Wodonga, a sharp increase on just five years ago.
And in most cases the defining factor is the pressure brought about by energy bill hikes, put at 63 per cent – on top of inflation – for residential customers Australia-wide since 2007-08.
That figure was unveiled in a separate report, released on Monday, by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
This stemmed from an inquiry ordered by the federal government into the National Electricity Market.
That report has warned of no easing in the crisis, with “decades” more of pressure ahead as a result of strict regulatory requirements that led to, in effect, a “gold-plating” of poles and wires.
The ombudsman’s report revealed Wodonga had the highest rate of disconnection in Victoria, with 1.3 cases for every 1000 people compared with the average of 0.54.
Wodonga was not alone in the North East in recording such a result.
Wangaratta was in the top three councils for energy disconnections and water restrictions in Victoria with an increase of 13 per cent since 2015-16, while the number of debt collections was up by 11 per cent.
Alpine was ranked No.1 for high bills.
Ombudsman Cynthia Gebert told The Border Mail it was crucial though to realise that disconnections “means threatened disconnection as well as actual disconnection”.
“One of the key things is that if customers are coming to us at the point that they’re being threatened with disconnection that’s almost a good outcome,” Ms Gebert said.
“I know that sounds a little strange.
“But it means that we can work with the customers to put in place payment plans that are sustainable and that are actually going to stop them actually being disconnected.”
UnitingCare Wodonga manager Naomi Jansen said there was no doubt the main cause of clients’ financial problems was skyrocketing energy prices.
“Over the past five years there has been a significant increase in the inability to pay. And it’s very reflective of the (stagnant) Centrelink payments compared with the increase in electricity prices. People are going without, just to try to cope with the bills,” she said.
The agency provides emergency food relief and financial counselling.
“Our financial counsellor sees them and gets the hounds off their back. They advocate on their behalf, such as with the ombudsman.” And it meant people could once again answer the phone or open the mail “without feeling so anxious and overwhelmed”.