Maine Public Advocate: A tough winter calls for more assistance with utility bills

An estimated 70,000 low-income Maine families need help paying their electric bills, but less than half receive financial assistance under the current Low Income Assistance program, and, for those receiving the benefit, it’s not enough to make electricity affordable. most of the recipients. As winter approaches and energy costs rise, that number can’t stand still.

“To address the immediate needs of low-income taxpayers, the Office of the Public Advocate recently submitted an emergency request to the PUC for a temporary increase in low-income benefits this winter,” wrote Maine Public Advocate William S. Harwood. Gregory Rec/Photographer, File

Now is when we pack up our homes and prepare for the long, cold winter. This year, with electricity prices unusually high, too many families are at risk of freezing to the point of being unsafe. The high cost of heating oil and electricity will cause financial hardship for many of us, especially low-income households.

In response to the increase in natural gas prices, the Public Utilities Commission recently announced a significant increase of nearly 49% in the average rate of supply for Central Maine Power customers and on average, a 35% increase for Versant Power customers. The standard supply price applies to the supply part of the utility bill, not the utility’s charge for delivering the electricity. Unfortunately, opening storm windows and plugging empty corners will not offset these high energy costs.

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Last spring, the Legislature saw a big increase in the general demand coming and wisely created an electric ratepayer advisory council to study the issue of affordability of electric service in Maine. This council, which includes 18 members with a wide range of expertise and knowledge, has just released its first annual report to the Legislature. Based on extensive research and analysis on electricity affordability, the 44-page report includes 17 formal recommendations for legislative and regulatory action to provide more assistance to low-income taxpayers.

To ensure that electricity is affordable (typically measured at less than 4% of household income), Maine needs to increase its annual subsidy from its current level of about $17 million to about $60 million. The council’s main recommendation is to fully fund the financial assistance needed to make electricity accessible to every low-income taxpayer in a timely manner.

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Specific recommendations to initiate the transition to full affordability include:

• Increasing funds gradually and focusing on getting the first subsidy to the most needy households; adds new sources of regular funding for the Low Income Assistance Program.

• Simplifying the registration of the Low Income Assistance program and reducing the cost of administering the program.

• Encouraging efficient use of electricity in low-income households.

While these recommendations are important for the long term, they will not provide relief to consumers who are struggling this winter.

To address the immediate needs of low-income taxpayers, the Office of the Public Advocate recently submitted an emergency request to the PUC for a temporary increase in low-income benefits this winter.

Specifically, the Office of the Public Advocate is requesting a $75 credit in January for all low-income clients currently enrolled in the Low Income Assistance program.

This will cap the first three months of increases of about $25 a month in the regular offer price that will go into effect on Jan. 1. Hopefully, this relief will help get these low-income taxpayers through a tough winter that is burdened with the average price.

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Mainers are a caring and compassionate bunch. We realize that we are all in this together, and we cannot leave our most vulnerable neighbors to survive the high energy costs of winter alone. They should not be put in a position to choose between paying their debts and buying the necessary food or medicine for their families. I am confident that, by working with the strong leadership in Augusta, we can provide the necessary assistance.

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