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Spring remains a mean season for shutoffs

For hundreds of Rhode Island families, spring is a cold, dark season ó itís when the gas and electric companies begin turning off utility service for customers who havenít paid their utility bills. This marks the end of the so-call winter moratorium, which prohibits most shutoffs during the coldest months.

This year, the moratorium (which began last November 1) ended April 15. If last year is a guide, roughly 1800 households will have had their service shut off last month, with 3200 more this month, and more than 20,000 by the time the moratorium rolls around again.

The majority of shutoffs ó but not all ó are reversed during the course of the year as customers make a down payment on the old bills and agree to some sort of payment plan, while promising to keep up on the current bills. For years, advocates for poor families, led by Henry Shelton of the George Wiley Center in Pawtucket, plus the utility companies themselves, have been trying to work out a program that would halt this on-and-off cycle.

Last year, it seemed a consensus had been reached, when the parties agreed that the poorest families simply cannot afford New Englandís high utility costs ó an average of almost $2000 a year for heat and electricity. But a plan to have those families pay just a portion of that bill, based on a percentage of their incomes, sputtered because there was no consensus on how to pay the difference ó and the state Public Utilities Commission nixed a plan by the advocates to put a surcharge on ratepayers.

Shelton then turned to the legislature, with a bill called "the affordable energy bargain act," which would have placed a one percent surcharge on all ratepayers, with low-income households required to pay six percent of their income for gas and electricity. Shelton says he is now told that the bill wonít come out of House or Senate committees.

A bill with better chances would reduce the amount of down payments required to restart service. Currently, distressed families facing their first shutoffs must pay 25 percent of the back bill, then 35 and 50 percent in the respective second and third instances. The new bill would reduce the thresholds, respectively, to 10, 25, and 50 percent. This measure was scheduled for a House vote after the Phoenixís deadline, having been approved by the House Corporations committee on April 21.

Spokesmen for New England Gas and Narragansett Electric said the companies oppose that bill, since the current down payments are part of recently revised PUC rules. The companies donít dispute that some customers have a hard time paying their bills. But they say the issues of poverty include housing and other urgent social problem that need to be addressed on a larger scale. "Itís not just an energy issue," says Frederick L. Mason III, of Narragansett Electric, saying he hopes the group that has been working on a heating assistance plan will reconvene this year.

In the meantime, Shelton is advising low-income families that receive shutoff notices to appeal them to the state Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, and then to seek a second hearing if they lose the first round.

Issue Date: May 7 - 15, 2004
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