How NHLA safeguards electricity assistance for low-income families
By Dennis Labbe
This column originally ran in the Keene Sentinel on June 18, 2016.
Electricity is a basic need for New Hampshire’s residents and businesses, but it is not free. Electric bills in New Hampshire can be expensive, but for low-income residents of New Hampshire, a big electric bill can present the impossible choice of keeping the lights on, or buying medicine or food.
Fortunately, low-income households throughout the state of New Hampshire may be eligible for discounts on their monthly electric bills, discounts which can ease the financial burdens on these families living in poverty. There will be some changes to these electricity bill discount levels starting July 1 but low-income households may continue to apply for discounted electric bills at their local community action agencies both before and after these changes occur on July 1.
In 2002, the Public Utilities Commission created the Electric Assistance Program, a statewide electric bill discount program for low-income residents, funded by a small surcharge on all New Hampshire electric bills, less than two-tenths of 1 cent per kilowatt hour. But pooled together, those fractions of pennies add up: Last year, between 32,000 and 36,000 New Hampshire families were enrolled in the program, saving low-income families a total of approximately $15 million each year.
When it created the Electric Assistance Program, the commission also appointed an advisory board to assist in reviewing and monitoring it. My employer, N.H. Legal Assistance, a statewide nonprofit law firm providing civil legal services to low-income and elderly New Hampshire residents who cannot afford a lawyer, holds a seat on this advisory board in order to advocate for the best interests of low-income electric ratepayers.
In 2014, the advisory board recommended, and the commission approved, temporarily increasing the amount of assistance to low-income families for two years by opening the program to more low-income families and making modest increases of 1 percent to the discounts received by some eligible families.
However, the board recently determined the program could soon be in the red without further modifications. The advisory board evaluated 13 different funding scenarios before ultimately recommending lowering the discount on all low-income electric bills by 1 percent, but maintaining the same basic income eligibility standards including the increase in eligibility. Late last month, the Public Utilities Commission approved the recommendation.
As of July 1, New Hampshire residents making up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline will be eligible for a discount of between 8 and 76 percent on their utility bills. Residents with the lowest income are eligible for the highest discount.
At 200 percent of the federal poverty level, a family of four has income of roughly $47,000, and would be eligible for an 8 percent discount. A family of four at 75 percent of the federal poverty level has an income of roughly $18,000, and would be eligible for a 76 percent discount.
This eligibility threshold is the same for the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, as well as for the Home Energy Assistance program, a New Hampshire program that provides free home energy efficiency and weatherization home improvements to qualifying low-income families.
Maintaining a consistent income eligibility threshold for all three of these energy assistance programs provides some efficiency for the community action program agencies who administer the enrollments. When less money is spent on administration, more money can go directly to families in need.
The Electric Assistance Program is a year round program and families may apply at their local community action agencies to enroll at any time. Program participants must recertify every year.
I’d like to thank the other members of the Electric Assistance Program advisory board for their careful consideration of the future of this valuable program, and the utilities commission for accepting our recommendations to ensure the program’s ability to continue to help tens of thousands New Hampshire residents afford to keep their lights on.
Dennis Labbe of Portsmouth is a staff attorney in the Portsmouth office of N.H. Legal Assistance.