Energy Utility Justice Program helps low-income people pay their bills

By Scott Merrill

NHLA Paralegal Advocate, Abdoul Fofana, works on the Energy Utilities Justice Project.

As winter approaches and heating fuel prices soar in the Granite State, New Hampshire Legal Assistance is helping those who can’t afford the high costs to stay warm.

NHLA’s Energy and Utility Justice Project (EUJP) advocates for access to affordable basic utility services for low-income people and represents clients who face utility disconnections, as well as utility debts.

While the EUJP concentrates primarily on systemic advocacy, the program also represents individual clients in need.

Last winter they helped “Bill,” a disabled 57-year-old in Grafton County, heat his home. For reasons of privacy, he did not want his real name used in this article.

Bill is a paraplegic who lives in the upstairs unit of a two-unit house that he owns in Ashland. His friend lives downstairs.

After applying for heating fuel assistance with the Ashland Community Action Program last fall, he was denied.

“This went back and forth, and we didn’t know why. We’d had assistance four or five years earlier and there was no reason we were denied,” he says, adding that he was made aware of NHLA and applied for assistance in January.

NHLA attorney, Abdoul Fofana, was assigned Bill’s case and quickly discovered the Community Action Program (CAP) in Ashland was denying him because they were misapplying the legal standard for what is considered a household.

Bill’s unit in the house uses heating oil while his friend who lives below him uses natural gas. Each unit has separate accounts—but the CAP was viewing the situation as a shared household.

“He was denied assistance because the CAP was stating that because he was living with a longtime friend, he was functioning as a family unit or that they were basically roommates,” Fofana said. “Once I figured out what was going on—and that they had misapplied the law; it was not the same household—they ended up amending their procedure manual.”

Bill said he’s grateful for the assistance received.

“I was over a barrel,” he said. “I couldn’t afford the fuel and I’m also disabled; that’s where Abdoul helped me out quite a bit.”

New Hampshire Campaign for Legal Services Director, Sarah Palermo, says Bill’s case was a good illustration of the type of advocacy work on system change the Utility Justice Project does.

“While the project doesn’t do a lot of individual representation,” she says. “This case led to a systemic change.”

Because of Bill’s case, the State of New Hampshire Fuel Assistance Program Procedures Manual was amended to include a clear definition of separate households and heating systems under the Shared Housing – Roommates section.

 

Systemic Advocacy Work

 

Smoke rises from chimneys last winter in Berlin, N.H., where the poverty rate is nearly 19 percent.

The systemic advocacy work done by the EUJP before the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), involves advocating for a certain position or changes to programs on behalf of their clients.

The project addresses a number of issues related to utility services, programs and rates, and how they affect low-income households in New Hampshire.

State Consumer Advocate, Don Kreis, says he’s pleased with the utility justice work being done by NHLA.

“Most legal aid organizations aren’t doing this type of work; they aren’t focused on energy,” he says. “NHLA deserves a pile of credit for doing what they do. Their effectiveness is excellent.”

NHLA attorney, Stephen Tower, who works on the EUJP, says a lot of the work involves reviewing dockets that come before the PUC, rate cases for Eversource and Unitil, and issues involving the Electric Assistance Program, a bill discount for low-income customers.

One of the energy efficiency programs Tower works on is the Home Energy Efficiency Program, funded through a system benefits charge that is part of everyone’s electric bills.

In 1996, legislation was passed that authorized the creation of a system benefits charge (SBC) to support energy efficiency programs and energy assistance programs for low-income residents.

“The Home Energy Assistance Program funds the utilities through the Community Action agencies across the state, sending folks into low-income households to do energy efficiency upgrades, with the goal of reducing the energy demand in the state,” Tower said. “We are trying to advocate expanding the Home Energy Assistance Program as much as possible where it is cost-effective so these homes, that otherwise would be left out, can be helped through this program.”

According to Tower, the cost benefit analysis also includes non-energy impacts such as health.

“There have been a number of studies to assess approximately the dollar value of the health benefit, how many fewer sick days are used by employees who live in these homes, how many days of school are not missed, fewer hospitalizations, and reduced deaths,” he said.

Director of NHLA’s Energy and Utility Justice Project, Ray Burke, says the pandemic has “shined a light” on the ways the program is administered, and his hope is that moving forward people will be able to easily access services.

“When Covid forced offices to shut down, it created challenges for people submitting applications,” he said.  “The Community Action Programs have done a great job in creating online apps for some of the Covid relief funding through the Federal government, and it’s our hope we can learn from that. There is talk in the works for doing an online app program, or a portal to upload materials.”

As for Bill in Ashland—and many around the state—the need for heating fuel assistance continues.

Palermo says NHLA is anticipating fuel and heating costs to be burdensome for many people around the state this year.

Fuel costs for home heating oil have risen over 50 percent from this time last year and the cost of propane and natural gas are also on the rise in the Granite State where over 37,000 rental households are experiencing extremely low income, meaning they are at or below the poverty guideline or 30% of their area median income (AMI).

Nearly half of the entire population were cost burdened before the pandemic, spending over 30 percent of income on rent, according to NH Fiscal Policy Institute.

“I felt bad because I knew there were people who would need heating oil more than me,” Bill says.  “But if I hadn’t received the assistance I wouldn’t be able to heat my house last winter or this winter either.”