TAPS Joins Fight for Lower Hydro Bills for the Poor

From the Time Colonist - Lindsay Kines

A coalition of seniors’ groups and anti-poverty advocates is turning up the heat on B.C. Hydro over rising electricity rates.

The groups, led by the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre, will appear before the B.C. Utilities Commission beginning today to seek relief for low-income customers — including seniors on fixed incomes and people on income or disability assistance.

Sarah Khan, a staff lawyer, said the advocacy centre has experienced an increase in calls from people struggling to deal with high electricity costs.

“They’re just saying that the rates go up, they’re on a fixed income and where are they supposed to get the extra money from?” she said.

Hydro rates increased four per cent on April 1 and are set to rise 28 per cent from 2014 to 2019.

The coalition wants a discounted rate for the poor and a crisis- intervention fund to assist those in arrears and facing disconnection.

Khan said the number of disconnections has “skyrocketed” to more than 30,000 customers a year compared with just 6,000 a few years ago.

“We’re looking at this huge spike in disconnections and all those customers have to pay reconnection fees, which is just crazy for a low-income person,” Khan said. “Where are they going to get the extra $30?”

The groups also want new rules for low-income customers, such as more flexible payment arrangements and no reconnection fee.

Khan said the discount rate would save low-income ratepayers $9 to $16 a month.

“For someone who’s getting $610 a month, having an extra $16 to spend is actually quite meaningful,” Khan said.

But Simi Heer, B.C. Hydro’s media relations manager, said in a statement that a separate rate for low-income customers would be “unduly discriminatory” to other ratepayers.

“A special, lower rate would mean that the lower rate would be subsidized by all other customers,” she said.

Heer said B.C. Hydro will spend $7.8 million over the next three years to help low-income customers cut their electricity use and lower their bills.

“We want to make it easier for British Columbians — especially low-income families — to find energy efficiencies and save on their electricity.

She also noted that British Columbia “has the third-lowest residential electricity rates in North America.”

Tony Pullman, treasurer of the Together Against Poverty Society in Victoria, said that’s small comfort to people faced with B.C.’s soaring cost of living and pensions or income-assistance rates that have failed to keep pace.

“You come to a point where you don’t have many choices and they’re all bad,” he said.

“Do you buy less food? Do you stop paying your rent? Do you stop buying clothing or things for your kids or do you not pay the hydro bill?”

Rev. Keith Simmonds said the Duncan United Church regularly sees people faced with disconnection notices from B.C. Hydro.

“Over the past year and a half, contacts about B.C. Hydro have increased — especially contacts from people who cannot afford to pay their hydro bills,” Simmonds said in testimony supporting the coalition’s application.

He said in an interview Monday that the church has worked with seniors, the working poor and single mothers worried about getting disconnected and then being unable to heat their homes or prepare meals for their children. “There’s quite a bit of concern then about losing custody of your children,” he said.

In addition to Together Against Poverty, the advocacy centre is representing Active Support Against Poverty, B.C. Old Age Pensioners’ Organization, B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, Council of Senior Citizens’ Organizations of B.C., Disability Alliance B.C. and the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre.