After utility shut-offs in Connecticut more than double, regulators hold hearing on programs for low- and moderate-income families

Hartford Courant

From a clinic in Hartford’s Asylum Hill neighborhood last week to a regulatory hearing room Friday, the increasing number of utility shut-offs for low- and moderate-income families is getting more attention this fall than it has in years.

The numbers themselves are partly the reason: 39,200 disconnections in Eversource’s territory in 2014, 80,700 last year. A count in 2016 showed 440,000 people in central and northern Connecticut struggled to pay their utility bills, according to testimony Friday by Brenda Watson of Operation Fuel in Hartford. Those people were eligible to receive help with weatherization but only 5% were served.

The nature of the problem — advocates call it the low-hanging fruit — is also pushing the issue. There are existing programs that can help eligible families reduce their back bills while making below-budget monthly payments, but hundreds of thousands of people don’t know this assistance is available.

The Public Utility Regulatory Authority, which called Friday’s hearing in New Britain on the affordability of residential electricity and gas, is also fueling the attention. Friday’s session resulted from calls by U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal to investigate the “alarming” increase in disconnections and assure that low- and moderate-income families weren’t paying for a utility company’s quest “to reduce its accounts receivables.”

Marissa Paslick Gillett, who was nominated as PURA’s chairwoman by Gov. Ned Lamont in the spring, pressed representatives of United Illuminating and Eversource on how they are identifying customers who are eligible for hardship programs, and she responded when Watson pointed out that energy assistance agencies are never asked how those programs are performing.

“We’re never asked for data,” said Watson, adding that Operation Fuel, which is funded in large part by ratepayers, and other such groups “want to be held accountable” so the assistance programs grow stronger.

“I appreciate you brought up accountability,” said Gillett. “It’s a surprise to me to hear that.”

She asked Watson and other advocates to help PURA develop the means to measure the performance, accessibility and utilization of the programs and decide on “what we should be asking.”

Gillett also responded to something Leticia Colon de Mejias of Efficiency for All in Windsor said in her testimony: that few people, if any, in the crowded hearing room were the struggling customers who needed the help that was the subject of the hearing.

“We need to make sure these proceedings are accessible to the people we need to hear from,” Gillette said.

She suggested “evening public hearings in the most-affected communities.”

Another factor that is pushing the affordability of utility bills to the forefront is the harm that a disconnection does to a family’s stability.

Bonnie Roswig, a lawyer for the Center for Children’s Advocacy in Hartford and a leader in the effort to connect tens of thousands of more people to the hardship programs, said high back bills and utility shut-offs are a major cause of homelessness. And those problems tend to keep families in shelters longer because they can’t move into stable housing without utility service. The health and schooling of children also suffer.

Friday, Roswig testified that most of her low-income clients who have lost their utility service were never coded as hardship cases by the utilities and were not affirmatively told of programs that can reduce back bills and establish an affordable monthly payment.

She said PURA should develop a script that the workers in utility call centers could follow to make sure eligible customers are matched with programs that can prevent utility shut-offs.