Giving Low-Income Vermonters A Break On Their Electric Bills

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(Host) State utility regulators want to give low-income Vermonters a break on their electric bills.

The Public Service Board says customers of the state’s two largest utilities should help subsidize a new program.

As VPR’s John Dillon reports, the goal is to make electricity more affordable for the poor.

(Dillon) With the Public Service Board order, Vermont joins other states in the Northeast in establishing a special low-income electricity support program.

The PSB said there was a clear need. The board noted that in 2009, about 11,900 customers had their power shut off because they couldn’t pay their bills.

(Taormina) "This is a real recognition by the Public Service Board that electricity is a necessity and we have to treat it as such."

(Dillon) Philene Taormina is advocacy director of AARP Vermont, which has pushed for low-income rate assistance for seven years. She said the board’s ruling will prevent future disconnects.

(Taormina) "People who struggle to pay their electric bills – people that are low-income and on a fixed income, many of them seniors – who forego medication and often food to pay their electric bill to keep their lights on will have access to a rate that is hopefully affordable for them."

(Dillon) The order applies to the state’s two largest utilities – Central Vermont Public Service Corporation and Green Mountain Power. Combined, the two have about 37,000 customers who would be eligible. Taormina says the average savings would be about $20 – or about 25 percent of the household electric bill.

The program would be funded by all other ratepayers, including residential and commercial customers. Taormina says the charge amounts to about 2 percent of their electric bills.

(Taormina) "The board gave a little bit of flexibility in that percentage. But it agreed that all classes of customers had to contribute a reasonable amount to pay for the program."

(Dillon) The PSB also gave the utilities some flexibility in designing the program. Steve Costello of CVPS says the utility will now work with the state and community action agencies to figure out who is eligible.

(Costello) "We don’t have the data on their income, and nor do we want that information. So we’re going to have to figure out who qualifies and to make sure that the folks who do qualify are getting the benefits of the program. And that’s something we’ll have to look at during the next stage of this."

(Dillon) At Green Mountain Power, spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure says the utility looks forward to setting up the program. She says other ratepayers now bear the cost when a customer is disconnected.

(Schnure) "We do have costs associated with customers who are unable to pay their bills, costs of collections, costs of customers who don’t pay their bills. So this is really probably a better way to deal with that issue of how can you help customers who really do not have the resources to pay for electricity."

(Dillon) The PSB targeted the program for people who make 150 percent or less of the federal poverty guidelines. For a family of two, that’s about $22,000 a year.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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