December 17, 2006

Utilities Board intervenor keeps heat on NB Power

Utilities Board intervenor keeps heat on NB Power

By Chris Arsenault

If this winter is anything like last year's, 1,000 New Brunswickers will have their power cut off. Peter Hyslop wants to change that. He's representing the public at recent hearings before the province's utilities board and says NB Power needs a no-disconnect policy to protect vulnerable people from being left in the cold.

"It was a pretty hard-nose hearing," said Hyslop. "New Brunswick has a slow disconnect policy, not a no-disconnect policy. I suggested there should be some oversight of NB Power in the way they administer their customer service."

During the fall election campaign, Shawn Graham promised not to allow power cut-offs for people who couldn't afford their bills during winter months.

But low income New Brunswickers must "beware of the Ides of March," as William Shakespeare once advised. Once March rolls around, NB Power can hit the lights on anyone who is behind on their bill.

There is no regulation stipulating how much notice the utility must give a customer before cutting service.

"Last year, we did about 5,000 disconnections," said NB Power spokesperson Brian Duplessis. "About 2,000 of those are people who just didn't pay their bills after moving. Another 2,000 paid their bill in full after disconnection, usually the same day as the disconnection or soon after. We make financial arrangements and payment plans and installment plans with the other 1,000.

"The last thing we want to do is disconnect somebody," Duplessis said. Critics say the utility isn't doing enough to protect the poor or provide proper customer service.

The editorial board of the Fredericton Daily Gleaner summed up some "unsettling" information about NB Power that has come to light during recent hearings. "Customers facing loss of service due to unpaid bills are not always told they can appeal to a third party. [The] late-payment fees the utility charges are in line with rates most credit-card companies use, around 19 per cent," wrote the editors.

Current power dynamics are especially cold towards the working poor who don't receive government assistance.

"If someone isn't eligible for social assistance then they are aren't eligible for government assistance [with their power bill]," said Robert Dugay, spokesperson for the Department of Community Services, who seemed quite incensed by the idea that his department had a responsibility to help working people who couldn't afford their bills. "We are dealing with our clients," he said.

It's often difficult to keep paying for power while earning minimum wage, so current government policy acts as a dis-incentive to work. People on social assistance can get government help with their bills. The working poor cannot. If a person with a job slips through an icy social safety net, they have to rely on churches and other local charities to keep the lights on.

It doesn't have to be this way. In Nova Scotia, the provincial government runs a $25 million program called 'keep the heat on', where low-income people can apply for rebates from high heating costs. Manitoba Hydro runs an endowment fund, managed in part by the Salvation Army, which helps low income people pay for the power needs.

As it stands, hundreds of people across New Brunswick are probably hoping Santa, or some other benefactor, will leave a lump of coal as a Christmas present. Talk about valuing the holiday spirit.

NB Power operates in a strange economic nexus. It is not run directly by the government. Its senior officials are not elected.

Yet, like a government and unlike other businesses, the power corporation has a guaranteed market.

Jim Smith the entrepreneur can't produce power and sell it to consumers.

Recent spates between various provincial power companies and wind energy producers illustrate this monopolistic practice.

"If NB Power was owned by a private investor it would be subject to all kinds of rules, but since it's owned by the government it isn't," said Peter Hyslop.

The strength of a society can be gaged by how well it takes care of its most vulnerable members. That means not leaving anyone in the cold this winter or without lights in the spring. Hopefully Hyslop will be successful in holding NB Power's feet to the fire of public scrutiny.

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