State looks at reducing electric rates for low income Vermonters

09/23/09 5:50PM By John Dillon
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AP Photo/Toby Talbot
(Host) State utility regulators are looking at how to reduce electric rates for the poor.

The Vermont Public Service Board recently decided to include all the state's utilities in its investigation of a low income rate program.

VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The idea - promoted by the Vermont chapter of AARP - is that Vermont should follow the lead of other New England states and cut power costs for poor people.

Lawyer Jim Dumont represents AARP at the Public Service Board.

(Dumont) "Electricity is a basic necessity that everybody in this day and age must have at least a minimum amount of."

(Dillon) AARP says the rate should apply for anyone making $16,000 a year or less.  

The Census Bureau estimates that 82,000 Vermonters live at or below this poverty level. Many of them are elderly.

AARP wants to cut rates for those who qualify by 25 percent.

(Dumont) "This program is designed to avoid what we see so much of in anecdotes and in the scientific studies that have been done that people who don't take their prescribed medication because they have to pay all their bills, including their electric bills. They skip food, they skip essentials because they have to pay their electric bill."

(Dillon) AARP's petition to the board was aimed at Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service, the state's two largest utilities. But the Public Service Board has decided to expand the case to cover all Vermont's power companies. Dumont says broadening the case makes sense.

(Dumont) "AARP doesn't have enough resources to crunch the numbers for the whole state. We're doing it for the two biggest utilities, and we think it's great the board is asking the right questions, saying how we can we do this for the state as a whole, and hopefully bringing other resources to bear to answer those questions."

(Dillon) Addressing the energy needs of low income people is not a new issue for Vermont.

(Patt) "I was dealing with this when I was assistant to the Commissioner of Social Welfare. This was my main subject."

(Dillon) That was in the late 1980s. Now Avram Patt is general manager of Washington Electric Cooperative, and he has a slightly different perspective. He says his small, rural utility doesn't have the large industrial or commercial customers that could help absorb the cost of the program.

(Patt) "We come into this with a concern that if you're going to do it utility by utility, given the demographics and the rate base differences among the different utilities, you're going to have a different, essentially a tax burden, on different people simply by virtue of where they live."

(Dillon) So Patt says the state should look at setting up a statewide program.

(Patt) "The revenues .. to pay for the assistance should be collected on a statewide basis, so you have the statewide mix of residential, commercial and industrial ratepayers - income levels, all of that - is blended and spread more evenly across the state." 

(Dillon) The business group Associated Industries of Vermont says the low income rate should be paid for through the state budget, not by other utility customers.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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