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Reliantly Unhelpful

God bless that jacket.

In case you haven't noticed -- and if you haven't, then congratulations on your apparently very comfortable financial circumstances -- you are paying a helluva lot more for electricity than you used to.

Fortunately, the fine folks at Reliant Energy are here to help. Unfortunately, that help comes with all the competence and enthusiasm that makes the Reliant Energy customer service department the envy of customer service departments everywhere (that are trying to be aggressively bad -- Best Buy, we're looking at you!).

Among the many who have found this out is Mike Sherman, a 26-year-old UH student. Being as financially sound as most full-time 26-year-old students -- in other words, constantly looking not just for ramen noodles but for specials on ramen noodles -- his heart lifted when he heard that Reliant was helping out with high electricity bills.

Goaded along by the state's Public Utility Commission, Reliant is offering a "chill now, pay later" plan that defers some bills until the cooler months. It's available to anyone making up to 125 percent of the poverty level.

Since Sherman pulls in about $2,400 a year at a restaurant gig, he figured it'd be easy enough to sign up for the program.

He obviously hadn't dealt too closely before with Reliant Energy customer service.

Masters -- absolute, stone-cold masters -- of the strategy of putting callers on hold, transferring them to someone else who has to hear the story from the beginning before putting the caller on hold and transferring them (repeat as necessary), Reliant dicked with Sherman for, by his count, at least four hours.

And then informed him he made too much money to qualify for the program.

Sherman receives a $4,000 Pell Grant and $10,500 in student loans. To Reliant, those loans are income; to Sherman, they're debt.

"Financial aid is considered income until the person is responsible for paying it, then it becomes a debt," says Reliant spokeswoman Patricia Hammond.

Why?

"I really don't know," she says.

Sherman has repeated his hold-and-repeat performance a handful of times trying to get an answer, but since his "income" is more than $12,250, he's out of luck.

After we spoke with Hammond, she got back to us to say that she'd made a mistake, that requests are considered "on a case-by-case basis" and that Sherman should set up an appointment to discuss his situation.

We're sure this will all be resolved. By December.

Partners of a Sort

When last we left the Reverend I.V. Hilliard and his wife, Bridget, they were celebrating her 50th birthday at the Hyatt Regency, where tickets were $100 and suggested gifts included Gucci handbags and Neiman-Marcus gift certificates (see Hair Balls, February 9).

Now the empire-building preacher is announcing the Hilliard Vocational Bible Institute, which will, according to the church, be "an answer to a Macedonian-type call from young men and women in the body of Christ who desire a spirit-filled Bible-emphasis training in a vocational educational setting."

The school is designed for the "future pastor, church administrator, evangelist, assistant pastor, youth leader...and worship leader," the announcement from Hilliard's New Light church says. "Our purpose is to provide an atmosphere for students to pursue their divine destiny, to hear from God and come to intimately know Him."

To do all this, the church said it had established a partnership with Houston Community College. Which you wouldn't normally think would be getting involved with the churchin' business.

Not to worry. "The word 'partnership' is kind of not accurate," says HCC spokeswoman Carole Keeney Harrington. "It's an agreement we have with them to teach classes on their campus, and that's all it really amounts to."

HCC will teach strictly vocational adult-ed courses such as computer technology, she says. It's a common arrangement used whenever a company or church has people willing to sign up for classes and space that can be used for teaching.

So no ministry courses? "Oh, no," she says. "These are all typical adult-ed courses we are doing."

Which means, we guess, that it won't be HCC providing the professors for "How to Get Your Flock to Donate Gucci Bags 101."

Partners of a Sort, Part 2

Dave, the last-name-hating manager of the Eros 1207 chain of adult stores, has finally been welcomed with open arms in Brazoria County.

His invitations to the county's public officials, encouraging them to attend the grand opening of his lube-and-vibrator shoppe, may not have gone over so well (see Hair Balls, August 10). But the Brazoria Chamber of Commerce has officially voted to accept him as a member.

"I'm not surprised," Dave says, "because the support from the community has been great." A ribbon-cutting is scheduled for September 15.

So, how do the folks at the Brazoria County chamber feel about their newest colleague? It's difficult to say.

Chamber president Sandra Shaw wouldn't return numerous phone calls seeking to confirm that Eros 1207 had been voted in. As our deadline approached, we tried one more time:

"She's really the one you would have to speak to, but she's not in at the moment," we were told.

So there's no one else in the entire chamber of commerce who can talk about one of your members?

"Unfortunately, I'm the only person in the office at the moment."

Okay, let's think maybe outside the office.

"I really think she would have to be the one to make the statement on that, though."

We're trying to give free publicity to one of your members! Come on!

"Really, it would have to be her that you speak to. She's more familiar with our membership and such."

President Shaw never did get back with us. Maybe she was too busy shopping at the newest, and proudest, member of the Brazoria Chamber of Commerce. (According to their Web site, they're featuring cock rings this week!)

Horse of a Different Color

Pelican Publishing Company has reissued the children's book Best Horse on the Force, by Sherry Garland. The "force" in question is the Houston Police Department's Mounted Patrol, located in those stables by Loop 610 and Memorial.

According to Pelican, the book is "a coming-of-age story [that] features two young boys who find themselves attempting to correct a practical joke that goes bad. As they try to make things right, their adventure begins, involving cops and robbers, a high-speed chase, loyalty and bravery."

That's a lot to pack into 104 pages, but Best Horse on the Force manages to pull it off. We've read our share of books aimed at the elementary school crowd, and this one could be worse. (We see the cover blurb now: "Could be worse!!" -- Houston Press. )

Still, author Sherry Garland's tale sometimes seems a little divorced from reality.

Brandon and Wayne, our two protagonists, are 12-year-old boys who work part-time at the HPD stables. One of the officers, Chris Parker, likes to play practical jokes on the lads.

Fair enough. And there's this, from narrator Brandon: "We stepped into the trailer, expecting to see Ginny, the policewoman who was on office duty this month. But instead of her usual pretty, smiling face we saw the sour puss of Chris Parker."

Which seems sexist enough, but then again here's a 1997 Houston Chronicle story on the verdict in a federal lawsuit, describing events that occurred about the time Best Horse was first released: "Officer [Patrice] Sharp said [fellow officers] Hankins and Bice harassed her in 1991 while she was a member of the Mounted Patrol. She said Hankins unzipped his trousers and made comments about her having oral sex. Bice, she said, referred to her breasts as 'headlights.' "

Geez, if publishers are gonna bitch about how they can't get young boys to read books, they can't go around ignoring gifts like that.

Then there's the climax of the book, a thrilling high-speed horse chase through the hiking trails of Memorial Park. Brandon puts aside his fear of horses to charge down the densely foliaged paths to chase The Ponytail Robber.

Along the way, his horse startles exactly no gay guys cruising. That ain't the Memorial Park we've always heard about.

Then again, maybe Garland is on to something, if the "Heads Up!" section of the Web site www.cruisingforsex.com can be believed. A July 15 comment: "Cops on bikes and horseback are aggressively working the parkÉBe very careful out there."

"On horseback"? Another great opportunity missed.

Tales from the BBB

There are a million sad stories in the files of the Houston chapter of the Better Business Bureau. Well, maybe not a million, but there are quite a few. And here is one of them: Career Awards of America, based in Sugar Land.


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