State seeks to improve aid to New Yorkers who can’t pay utility bills

 

Lots of New Yorkers can’t pay their utility bills.

As of November, 1.2 million people were 60 or more days behind with Con Edison, National Grid and other utilities. Their total arrearages topped $756 million. Last year, electric and gas companies cut service to 277,000 customers, and wrote off $195 million worth of bills they expect to never collect, Public Service Commission data shows.

Sometimes falling behind leads to tragedy. Three Bronx children died in an October 2013 fire set off as they played with candles their mother set out after Con Edison cut power to their apartment for nonpayment.

The Commission wants to improve its programs to help low-income people with their utility bills. It has ordered its staff “to conduct an investigation of utility low income programs, to identify best practices, and develop a set of recommendations for how best to optimize” the programs.

In a statement, PSC chair Audrey Zibelman said the review will “assess the adequacy of the Commission’s low-income programs to ensure regulated utilities adhere to best practices in regards to the services provided to all low-income customers throughout New York. The review will provide the opportunity to standardize utility low-income programs to reflect best practices and will help inform future rate cases, improve transparency, and help stakeholders, especially low-income advocates, participate more fully in the process.”

Low-income people get a variety of discounts on their utility bills. The appendix to the Commission’s January 9 order establishing the proceeding shows the variation between different utility companies.

Con Edison, for example, gives low-income electric customers a $9.50 monthly discount. It discounts gas bills according to low-income customers’ use. In National Grid’s upstate territory, low-income people get a flat $5 per month discount on their electric bills, a $15 per month electric bill discount if they use electricity for heat, and a flat $10.50 per month discount on their gas bills. [If you pull up a copy of the order, note that the Commission still refers to National Grid’s upstate territory by its old name, Niagara Mohawk.]

Eligibility rules vary. Some utilities enroll those in the state’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Others, including Con Ed, take customers from a variety of programs, including Food Stamps and Medicaid.

The commission wants more consistent rules that would make its rate cases easier to handle. “We expect a majority of the utilities to have rate cases pending before the Commission in 2015,” the January 9 order says. “While low income programs, in aggregate, account for less than 0.8% of utility revenues, a substantial amount of time is spent by the parties in rate cases litigating or negotiating settlement of low income program designs and funding levels. This proceeding is expected to assist the parties, especially low income advocates, in efficiently managing their finite resources.”

AARP, the Public Utility Law Project, NYPIRG and Consumers Union issued a joint statement calling the Commission’s decision a “major and unprecedented step that could help millions of utility consumers across New York State.”

About Bill Sanderson

I'm a New York-based journalist, and a former reporter at the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, the Bergen Record in New Jersey, and the New York Post. My work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch.com and Politico New York. Twitter: @wpsanderson.
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