By HEATHER NELLIS
Recorder News Staff
The state Public Service Commission last month approved gas and electric rate decreases for National Grid users that will go into effect today.
Considering this year's Home Energy Assistance Program ended on the early side, Montgomery County's coordinator says the decrease is welcome, but she's concerned about those who use deliverables like oil to heat their homes.
National Grid's new rate plan will be in effect today through March 31, 2016. Rates are expected to rise again after the first year, but "due to the sharp decrease in the first year, electric delivery bills through 2016 will remain lower than they are today," according to the commission.
In the first year, anticipated impacts on the overall bills of residential customers is a 6.6 percent decrease in electricity costs, and a 4 percent decrease for gas.
Overall residential bills are projected to increase by 3.3 percent in the second year and 2.1 percent in the third year for electricity; 3.9 percent in the second year and 2.9 percent in third year for gas.
The first-year decrease is made possible by the expiration of a $190 million surcharge and return of deferred customer credits. The surcharge was allowed by the commission as part of previous rate plans to recover various costs associated with the company's electric business.
"The company does not control the cost of energy itself, and simply passes through that cost," according to a National Grid press release. "Customers recently have benefited from near historic lows in the price of electricity and natural gas for the past several years."
Still, Gail Squillace, Montgomery County's HEAP coordinator, said program applications continue to rise "as the population continues to suffer from the increase in the cost of living, and rampant unemployment."
She said between 4,000 and 4,200 people received assistance during the 2012-13 heating season.
"More come on board every year, and a great deal of them are elderly," Squillace said.
Client Services Representative Kelly Casler of the county Office for Aging, which also accepts HEAP applications for the elderly and developmentally disabled, said in addition to seeing more new faces seeking home heating assistance, she's seen a noticeable change in response to offers for other assistance.
"We tell people if they are eligible for food stamps or other assistance, and in past years, they say 'No, no, no, there are other people who need it more than I do.' But now, those people who didn't want to apply for anything other than HEAP will apply for other benefits because of their circumstances," she said.
Squillace said a decrease in National Grid's rates is "welcome news," but was critical the utility had to implement the surcharge in the first place.
She also feels National Grid can do more to help people who can't pay their heating costs, such as extending the 30 day grace period to 60 days before threatening disconnection.
Squillace also expressed concern for those who live in rural areas, especially considering HEAP ended nationwide in mid-March.
"A lot of people in the city [of Amsterdam] heat with natural gas, so National Grid's rate decrease will benefit them, but 50 percent of the county's population, particularly rural areas, heat with deliverables like oil, pellets, wood, kerosene and propane, so their costs are different."
Squillace said the HEAP typically tries to function through April to help people with their heating costs through the rest of the chilly spring weather.
"We try to get through the heating season so people can shut their furnaces off, but it's still too cold to do that yet," she said.
Squillace said any reason she has to explain why HEAP ended early this year would be speculative, because her bureau hasn't received any official notice, but she thinks it has a lot to do with the federal cuts implemented in March that are known as the sequester.
"New York State is the highest HEAP consumer because of its population. It's hard to believe we get more than the state of Montana, which gets much more snow, but we do," Squillace said. "Our legislators work hard to get a big chunk of the benefits for our state, but I think the sequester had a great deal to do with it ending when it did."
Casler said though HEAP is no longer available for this heating season, the agency tries to offer other forms of assistance to help ease the burden of other costs. She said the EmPower Program helps with replacing heating equipment, and implementing energy saving reduction measures to help lower bills.
"We also look at their income to see what programs they're eligible for, like food stamps or health insurance," she said. "We might not be able to give people exactly what they're looking for, but they can still save money."