Nearly a month ago safety net rules went into effect which allow low-income families to maintain electric and gas service without fear of disconnection during the winter months. These rules are in place in most states and in New Jersey are known as the Winter Termination Program. Unfortunately, many of the families that are at-risk do not know the regulations, while companies that are supposed to follow the rules disregard them right and left.
You may have heard stories in which a low-income customer contacts their utility company only to be told they will be shut off soon unless they pay a large portion of their bill. This may be allowable under certain circumstances but may not comply with regulations issued by the state’s Board of Public Utilities. A situation came to this person’s attention and it was obvious the facts did not add up. For example, the customer was advised to pay three quarters of the outstanding balance. State rules allow a protected customer to pay up to 25% of the bill and go on a budget plan. The customer indicated she was receiving welfare. She was told that wasn’t enough, that she had to be receiving energy assistance (LIHEAP) to be protected against a winter shut off. She was further advised that service can be shut off as long as the temperature does not go below 32 degrees. Not true, as the weather does not supercede state regulations.
Last month the New Jersey Community Resources website featured an article as to which groups of people are protected against disconnections. To further assist social workers and community agencies in an effort to protect vulnerable individuals and families a series of questions have been prepared when they are interviewing their clients. It should be useful in averting unnecessary shutoffs and a source of information about other energy programs. The Utility Questions Guide is available on this site. Feel free to share it.
Complaints about violations of the Winter Termination Program rules should be directed to the Board of Public Utilities at 800-624-0241.
In a related matter, we should also wonder what happened to the funding promised to families almost two years ago. Legislation was signed in Trenton in January, 2010 with funds becoming available starting July 1, 2010. It is known as the Temporary Relief for Utility Expenses (TRUE) program but hasn’t been overly successful in averting shutoffs for moderate income families.