Utility access advocates call for stronger regulation with gas and electric rates set to rise

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Editor’s Note: In this second and final installment of a series on the difficulties faced by Rhode Island heating consumers during the winter months, Rhode Island Catholic staff reporter Lauren Clem reports on utility regulation and a recent proposal to raise base distribution rates for heating and electric service.

PAWTUCKET — Patricia Ann Perry might spend her days in a wheelchair and require help with everyday tasks, but her son, Shane Ward, warned not to let the symptoms of her severe Alzheimer’s disease fool you. His mother, he said, is a tough lady who raised five children on her own and was once known to stand up to abusive spouses who came looking for their wives at the women’s shelter she helped co-found.

“She’s a fighter. She survived cancer, she beat that a few years ago, thank God,” said Ward, who spoke with Rhode Island Catholic while feeding lunch to his mother at the kitchen table of their Pawtucket home.

Ward and his sister serve as Perry’s full-time caretakers, bathing, dressing and feeding her every day. Both mother and son also have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which requires regular use of an electric breathing machine. In addition to medication, the family relies on a stable environment and a steady electric supply to address their medical needs, so when Ward heard that National Grid was planning to raise base distribution rates for electric and gas service in September, he wasn’t happy about what this would mean for the family budget.

“It’s going to hurt us. I’m going to have to steal from Peter to pay Paul, steal from Paul to pay Peter. I got to make sure there’s food, I got to make sure there’s hot water to wash her clothes,” he said.

Ward was one of about 40 individuals who attended a Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission hearing at Pawtucket City Hall on February 15 to protest the proposed rate increases, the first of their kind since 2012. If approved by the Commission, the rate increases for both gas and electric would take effect September 1. The proposal was originally projected to increase the company’s annual operating revenue by approximately $71 million but was adjusted in January to account for tax savings following the federal tax overhaul and is now projected to increase revenue by approximately $45 million.

“We understand that there is never a good time to raise rates,” said Raquel Webster, senior counsel for National Grid, during testimony offered at the hearing. “However, the company’s base distribution rates have not changed in more than five years, so the request that we made in our November filings is necessary to continue providing the level of service that our customers expect.”

Nearly all of those who attended the hearing testified in opposition to the rate increases, citing already high rates, poor customer service and dissatisfaction with the company’s treatment of low-income customers. Many introduced themselves as members of the George Wiley Center, a Pawtucket-based advocacy organization that focuses on utility access and other issues affecting low-income households. In addition to organizing community members to offer testimony at public hearings, the center lobbies for legislation that would strengthen utility regulation in Rhode Island and expand options for low-income customers struggling to pay their bills.

“[We’re] trying to get folks who often feel like they’re on the margins and shut off of the process to feel like they’re part of the process and their voices are heard,” said Camilo Viveiros, George Wiley Center coordinator. “We see our role as advocating for better policy and we want service agencies to have better options.”

In 2011, the center experienced a victory when the Rhode Island General Assembly passed the Henry Shelton Act, aimed at assisting customers in significant debt to utility companies. Named for the George Wiley Center’s founder, the legislation created an arrearage forgiveness program that allowed low-income utility customers to obtain forgiveness for up to 60 percent of their bill if they kept up with a monthly payment plan for the remaining balance.

The legislation was significant, but Viveiros said its impact is limited without accompanying policies to prevent low-income customers from accumulating debt on their utility bills in the first place. The center is now advocating for a Percentage of Income Payment Plan, a program that would adjust monthly utility payments based on a household’s income.

“When you look at utility policies, those are the two kind of legs. If you just have one without the other, poor people are kind of trapped,” he said.

While the hearing was intended to gather comment on the proposed rate increases, many of those present took the opportunity to call for the implementation of a Percentage of Income Payment Plan or other legislative reform. Residents were joined by several public officials, including William Vieira, Pawtucket’s assistant public works and operations director, who testified in opposition to the rate increases on behalf of Mayor Donald Grebien, and Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Providence), who introduced legislation to begin the process of creating a not-for-profit public utility model earlier this year. Lt. Governor Dan McKee has also spoken out in favor of stronger utility regulation, calling on National Grid in January to pass on its tax savings to customers immediately.

“There needs to be more public pressure put on all companies,” said Viveiros, reflecting a sentiment shared by many at the hearing.

For customers like Ward, a Percentage of Income Payment Plan could have a significant impact on their ability to keep up with monthly bills. A few years ago, a burst sewage pipe in need of repair caused the family to fall behind on their utility bills and their gas and electric service were shut off despite a Rhode Island law that protects medically vulnerable individuals from utility shutoff.

In 2015, the family joined a class action lawsuit filed by the George Wiley Center in partnership with the Rhode Island Center for Justice against National Grid for shutting off the utilities of medically vulnerable individuals. The suit resulted in improved protections, but Ward is still concerned about what could happen if they’re forced to choose between medical and utility bills following rate increases in September.

“I’m going to choose food, medicine and her well-being over everything else,” he said. “She will not lose, she will not go without. And I told them, if you were in my position, you would be doing the same for your mom, dad, whoever you were taking care of.”

While the debate over utility regulation might seem like an uphill battle for those who struggle to pay the bills, Ward expressed appreciation of the George Wiley Center and other organizations that try to raise awareness of the issue. And he has a model to look up to, even if his mother now depends on him just as much as others once depended on her.

“I get my fight from her. And the man I am today is because of my mom,” he said.