Ameren UE pledges to put $5 million toward energy assistance programs for its customers over the next year.

Tim Fox with Ameren UE says the first $1 million will be for the company’s existing ‘Dollar More’ program. Ameren will use that to match dollars that are donated to the program by customers who want to lend a hand to others who are having trouble paying their bills.

“The customer calls us and says they’re having a problem paying their bill. Then we will locate a Dollar More agency near them and put them in touch. Then the agency does the job of verifying eligibility and dispersing the funds,” Fox said.

Historically, customers have donated about $700,000 a year to the program. The United Way works with about 40 human service agencies in the state to distribute the funds. Customers in need can call Ameren at 1-800-552-7583 or call the United Way’s 2-1-1 hotline. Fox says Ameren UE anticipates a huge increase in need.

“What’s happened, especially this summer with the extreme heat, is it’s really driven the need up greatly. I was talking with a woman from United Way and she said that they’ve been getting about 1,100 calls a day,” Fox said.

Fox says the other $4 million that w will be put toward programs that haven’t been completely developed yet. He expects the announcements for those in the coming months.

“All I can say is we are trying to reach a broader base of customers. So as the programs are developed we’ll be looking at ways of reaching other customer groups,” Fox said.

He says many customers are in need of this type of assistance for the first time due to the tight economy, or in some cases, layoffs. Those are the types of people Fox says they want to include.

“In the past we’ve rolled out programs like one we called Clean Slate, which literally wiped customers’ past due balance clean. I think that program ended up totaling about $5 million when all was said and done, we did a couple of different installments of it. It’s a significant commitment and we’re hoping to help some people out,” Fox said.

Ameren UE says the money for these donations come from shareholder funds, not from money customers pay for service.

AUDIO: Ryan Famuliner reports [1 min MP3]