A rollback of the moratorium on utilities shutting off gas or electricity for lack of payment brought an outcry from the George Wiley Center and the Ratepayers Advisory Board at a Public Utilities Commission (PUC) hearing on Thursday.
But it was the account of an East Providence man who said he has been without electricity for at least six months that riveted the audience.
With tears rolling down his cheeks, Paul Souza introduced himself as a “regular guy.” Souza has a job, and for a while, his wife taught in a parochial school. But there were cutbacks and the family lost that income.
“We’re not stupid people,” he said.
From Souza’s description, the family is in a jam. They are living in Souza’s father’s home but, because of his medical condition, the father is no longer in the house. What money Souza earns goes into paying the taxes and for food. He owes National Grid $3,140 for electricity.
“There’s no lights, no television, no refrigerator … everything is black. I camp in my house,” he said.
He said he runs a generator four to six hours a day, but that’s not enough to refrigerate food so he has to go shopping every day. And he said a day doesn’t go by when his kids don’t ask when the power will go back on.
At this point, Souza doesn’t see that happening until next spring.
“I’ll have it,” he said of the money, “at tax time.”
Souza’s testimony posed more questions than it answered. He said he had reached out for assistance, but had he exhausted all the possibilities?
Nonetheless, the testimony illustrated the dire conditions some people face and supported the argument that reducing the moratorium on shutoffs from Nov. 1 to April 15 to Nov. 1 to March 31 would be a mistake. The rollback is suggested as part of a change and consolidation of rules and regulations governing the termination of electric and gas service.
“How was this decided, and was there any science behind that?” questioned Jack Colby, who described himself as an experimental psychologist.
Colby outlined average Rhode Island temperatures for the month of April, pointing out that the few degrees of difference have no bearing on the 60-degree threshold considered as safe for children and elderly. Below that temperature, he said, “there are very serious health consequences.” He said the blood pressure of elderly increase with the drop in temperature and there are other disorders, including respiratory problems and mental health issues. He said children experience an unhealthy weight gain.
“I don’t see a compelling reason to throw these people off,” Colby said. He suggested, that the moratorium be extended to May 1. That frequently happens. The PUC has extended the moratorium on an emergency basis for the past six to seven years.
Elmer Gardiner of Warwick endorsed a Nov. 1 to May 1 moratorium, since that’s what is happening year after year. He also suggested that the regulations be expanded to include pre-kindergarten children. Currently, the rule prohibits shutoffs in households where there are children 2 years and younger.
Elizabeth Morancy, chair of the Ratepayers Advisory Board, called the rollback “a bad move” and questioned why it would be done.
“Rhode Island has the longest moratorium of the New England states. Well, so what? We’re proud of Rhode Island,” she said.
“That’s right, we sure are,” came an echo from the audience.
Commissioner Paul Roberti observed that New York has only a two-week moratorium on shutoffs, adding, “We’re trying to find the right balance of policy.”
Sandra Morra of the Wiley Center said the crisis of shutoffs is increasing. She was also critical of the commission, saying that, in other states, “the commission is the advocate for the people.” She called the new rules harsher, and in particular was critical that the utility should decide whether a customer should be exempt from a shutoff because of a medical condition.
“What do we need to change them to listen to the doctors?” she asked.
Morra said there are some people who will try to scam the system, “but just look at Wall Street.”
Maggie Rogers of the Wiley Center questioned, where are the priorities?
She noted that weather makes the headlines and if there were a northeaster at Thanksgiving, it would dominate the news.
“We’ve got an economic storm that hits thousands of homes every night,” she said. “Why is that not the story every night?”
Thomas Kogut, PUC spokesman, said Monday the commission continues to take written comment on the proposed regulations and that it would take the matter up at an open meeting Dec. 6.