Many were relieved Friday morning when the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) decided to postpone a vote on changes to the Rules and Regulations Governing the Termination of Residential Electric and Natural Gas Service, and instead hold further public hearings, as requested by a number of state organizations and individuals.
If approved, the rule changes would reduce a 55-page document to an 8-page document; redefine “financial hardship” as combined gross income less than or equal to 60 percent of the state median income, reduced from 75 percent; shorten the Winter Moratorium period from Nov. 1 to April 15, to Nov. 1 to March 31; and alter the “protected status” of various customers, for example redefining elderly status as all adult residents 65 or older, increased from 62 years of age.
The proposed changes, many believed, would have a detrimental effect on low-income homeowners, families, young children, the ill and the elderly.
“Across the board, these proposed changes represent a tightening of the rules regarding utility shutoffs. That is, far fewer people will be eligible for help of any kind – due to the redefinition downward of ‘financial hardship,’ the shortening of the moratorium period, the minimizing of ‘protected status’ customers – all these changes will obviously result in greater misery for the financially disadvantaged,” writes Kevin L. Ryan, D.M.D., recently retired director of the Emergency Dental Clinic at the School of Dental Medicine of Tufts University and a volunteer at the George Wiley Center in Pawtucket, in a letter to the PUC.
“Please postpone, or better yet, rethink any action that would stiffen the guidelines of cold weather months utility shutoffs,” writes Gail Faris of West Kingston. “This is another form of violence toward those in poverty. This would not be an action of social or economic justice. It would be a mean-spirited action that has no place in a democratic society. Please do the right thing.”
Prior to the vote, PUC Chairwoman Margaret Curran thanked those who voiced their opinions and sent in petitions. She said the PUC’s aim is not to “significantly change the regulations or protections,” but rather to “remove overlap between agencies that can work to the detriment of the people they’re trying to protect.”
According to the PUC’s website, www.ripuc.org, the PUC comprises two regulatory bodies: A three-member commission (Commission) and the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (Division).
“When split, the primary authority went to the Division, not the Commission,” Curran said. “The Division has more power and authority at the cabinet level, unlike the Commission.”
Curran said the Commission understands people are afraid of losing protections against arbitrary shutoffs and is conscious of the financial difficulties the people of Rhode Island face.
“We failed to properly convey our information and educate the people on what we’re trying to do,” she said. “Thank you for your public comments and petitions. We will have more comment and hearings to be set up and we will not vote on this today.”
John Colby, a psychologist and retired Providence College professor, testified on the matter a couple weeks ago.
“One of the things they’re proposing to do is to shorten the moratorium period and end it before April,” he said. “The average temperature in April is the same as the temperature in November, which is included in the moratorium period. You can have very extreme lows in April.”
According to a letter Colby submitted to the Commission, the record low R.I. temperature for April is 11 degrees Fahrenheit, “a value that shows the extreme temperature variability for that month in this state.”
Colby said when the temperature in a home drops below 60 degrees, which the World Health Organization has set as the minimum acceptable indoor temperature for homes, health for children and the elderly becomes at risk. He said because average April temperatures in R.I. are in the 50s, he recommends extending the termination moratorium to May 1.
Another change Colby recommends is expanding the “infant protection” status, which is defined as “no termination of service where there is an infant under the age of 2,” to also over adolescence.
He argues that because cold temperatures negatively affect children and adolescents more than others, households including infants, children and adolescents should not be subject to utility shutoffs.
“Excluding children and adolescents as a protected class will impede healthy development for individuals and impact as well their families, their communities and our state,” Colby writes.
During an interview Friday, Colby said, “If they changed the regulations to protect people, then the World Health Organization facts should influence the decision and that doesn’t seem to be the case here.”
Colby said the George Wiley Center has been seeking to convince the Commission to have a study period and allow the voices of people outside of Warwick to be heard.
One such voice is that of Sheila Wilhelm, vice chair of Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), whose organization has been trying to schedule a hearing in the Providence area, even offering the use of a conference room in their building at 340 Lockwood St.
“We sent a letter offering to hold a hearing at our building in Providence. We’re here, we’re accessible,” she said. “There’s no excuse that they can’t get a hearing in Providence.”
Wilhelm said she was glad of the Commission’s decision to delay the vote and hold more hearings.
“We’ve been organizing for 28 years, we’ve seen a lot of hearings and bad actions by the PUC that hurts families, elderly and young children,” she said, adding she expected the Commission to delay the vote Friday and hold more hearings. “In our letter, we reminded them of the relationship we’ve had with them over the past 27 years and I hope they were reminded of the actions we’ve done.”
Wilhelm said the PUC knows the power of the people is strong.
“We may not have the money or powerful names, but we will defend our families, elderly and children,” she said.
As a grandmother, Wilhelm said one of her big concerns is family unity.
“Sometimes you lose the children,” she said. “A new cycle starts and they can develop anxiety and separation disorders.”
Wilhelm said another concern is that even when hearings are held and rulings voted on, they are only presented in English.
“There are a lot of South East Asian and Spanish people that pay their bills and need to be aware of the rulings, and some of them are the ones that are most affected,” she said. “I’m glad there will be more hearings and I hope they happen in a timely manner.”
Camilo Viveiros, lead organizer with the George Wiley Center, said he was glad with the decision to expand the process and consider preserving the rules.
“We look forward to working with them to coordinate more constituent input across the state,” he said. “This was the result we hoped for. I’m glad they listened to the responses from multiple organizations and individuals who weighed in to slow down, expand and have a multi-lingual process.”
Many who showed up in protest of the rule changes held signs reading “Vote No!” throughout the meeting. Following the favorable ruling, however, they gathered outside the entrance to the PUC building on Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick and sang traditional Christmas carols with adapted lyrics in celebration. Carols, provided by the George Wiley Center, included: “Let Us Know” (Let It Snow); “Hear our Calls” (Deck the Halls); “I’m Dreaming of a Warm Christmas” (White Christmas); “Ross the Longshoreman” (Frosty the Snowman); “Away in an Apartment” (Away in a Manger); “The 12 Days of Shut-off” (The 12 Days of Christmas) and “We Wish You a Merry Justice” (We Wish You a Merry Christmas).