Advocacy groups call for electric bill assistance

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(Host) Advocacy groups are calling for a new program to help the elderly, disabled and poor pay their electric bills.

But the Douglas Administration is cautious about a new subsidy for low-income people.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Philene Taormina is the advocacy director for AARP-Vermont. She says elderly and low income people frequently face the difficult decision of paying their electric bill, or buying food.

(Taormina) “Most people can pay their electric bills. But what are they giving up to do it? Low income families and seniors on a fixed income have to make choices out of very limited choices. And studies have shown that many families will suffer hunger, health issues and other negative consequences in order to keep their lights on and their heat going.”

(Dillon) The legislature last year asked the Public Service Board to design an electricity affordability program. With that report now completed, the advocates say it’s time for the legislature and the Douglas Administration to follow through.

Karen Lafeyette works for the Low Income Advocacy Council. She wants the legislature to create a program similar to one that helps low-income people buy fuel oil.

(Lafeyette) “Although Vermont has been generous in supplementing LIHEAP – although it’s only up to 125%t of the federal poverty level, we do not offer, as other New England states do, an income-based program for electric usage.”

(Dillon) The Public Service Board projected that to serve half the people who may be eligible, the subsidy for electric bills would cost about $8.5 million a year.

The money could come from a flat surcharge on electric bills or a payment based on how much electricity a customer uses.

Taormina of AARP says she thinks the public will support a small surcharge to fund the program.

(Taormina) “AARP did a survey this summer. Eighty percent of the people polled said they would spend a $1.25 a month to support a program like this. So we’re trying to keep the range to $1.25 or less. A dollar is what we’re shooting for.”

(Dillon) The Douglas Administration questions the idea of a surcharge. Steve Wark is with the Department of Public Service, the state office that advocates for ratepayers.

(Wark) “We understand that affordability is an issue but we’re also equally concerned about how this problem is remedied. So we will continue to work with the legislature on this issue. But we have concerns about the long-term impact of any new charges and new programs.”

(Dillon) Wark also points out that Vermont now enjoys some of the lowest electric bills in New England.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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