Nash County, N.C. — Going to the Frederick E. Turnage Municipal Building in Rocky Mount is a trip Clarence and Pamela Henderson dread every month.
The retired couple go there to pay their utility bill. This month, it's nearly $1,000. Usually, it averages close to $900 in the winter.
"It's ridiculous," Pamela Henderson said. "It's more than your mortgage."
On a fixed income, the money only goes so far.
"It's like tossing between 'Do you keep the roof over your head?' or 'Do you do the heat?'" she said.
"And you pray for the warm temperatures to come back," Clarence Henderson said.
Complaints about utility bills in Rocky Mount are nothing new.
That's why Rocky Mount leaders this week took a step toward helping keep the heat on for those struggling to pay their bills.
"I don't think any city official wants to wake up the next morning and say that someone died because their utilities were turned off," said City Councilman Andre Knight.
The City Council voted to hire two staff members and expand the customer service specialist department.
If someone truly cannot afford to pay his or her bill, staff will help set up a manageable payment plan, and in some cases, cover the cost through donations.
Councilman Reuben Blackwell and Knight say more people are struggling with the bills this year because of job losses and colder temperatures.
""They can keep connected in the most critical and severe time of weather for us," Blackwell said "It's critical, because energy costs for everyone are really escalating."
"We can't bankrupt our city, but we can't bankrupt people's households," Knight said.
Residents like Carol Maude say the extra help is necessary in Rocky Mount.
"I think that is wonderful. I really do, because the need is very great and the jobs are not there," said Maude said. "Hopefully, I will be one of those people they can assist, because I can't afford $1,000 a month."
Without that help, she said, she and her family might have been left in the cold.
City leaders say they are also working on seeking some federal grants to help to help ease the bigger problem of high utility costs in general.