High on any list of the neediest at this time of year should be the 8,800 unfortunate Philadelphia-area families facing the winter without central heating because of utility shutoffs.

Far too many people likely will suffer without a basic, life-sustaining necessity most families in the region take for granted.

Even more troubling is that roughly 25 percent more families are without power or gas service this year than last, Peco Energy Co. and Philadelphia Gas Works reported this week. Across Pennsylvania, a similar trend is evident in the 20 percent increase in shutoffs tallied by the state Public Utility Commission.

It would be an even bleaker landscape but for good news from Washington, Harrisburg and Trenton about a major expansion of energy assistance efforts this winter.

After Congress doubled funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to $5 billion this fall, Pennsylvania and New Jersey officials raised their states' income eligibility limits in order to help more households qualify for heating grants. That's smart policy, especially in a severe recession.

Even these enhanced government initiatives, though, won't meet the entire need. So it's important this winter, as always, for individuals to donate toward energy-assistance programs like the well-established Utility Emergency Services Fund (

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) in Philadelphia.

Already gave at the office?

More than you know, likely. Most paying customers already help to subsidize those who cannot or refuse to pay. In Philadelphia, underwriting customer-assistance programs accounts for nearly 20 percent - $300 per year - of the average paying customer's gas bill. That's neither a fair nor sustainable measure, especially as energy prices climb.

The growing cost of carrying nonpaying utility customers, in fact, prompted Harrisburg policymakers to loosen shutoff rules several years ago. The 2004 measure was a reasonable attempt to strike a better balance, and give utilities more leverage to get customers to tackle overdue bills. Philadelphia Gas Works, in particular, needed every tool possible to boost what had been historically dismal collection rates. As a result, collection rates have improved.

But the downside of getting tough on nonpaying customers is that cutting off heat to homes raises the specter that people will be endangered. Other methods of keeping warm - space heaters or illegally tapping a meter - pose a grave risk of house fires.

In tracking news reports of home deaths where utilities have been shut off, the PUC noted a sharp increase since 2004. That's evidence enough to redouble efforts to prevent shutoffs. Getting energy aid out to city customers quickly has been a problem, and Harrisburg's decision to cut off aid applications early last year to conserve funds didn't help.

The goal should be to seek ways to prevent poor customers from facing utility terminations in the first place, while still keeping up efforts to make inroads on delinquencies that unfairly burden paying utility customers and the utilities.