Way clear to help poor pay heat bills

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Low-income households struggling to pay rising heating costs may soon get some long-awaited relief.

In a recent decision, Ontario's Divisional Court overruled the position taken by the Ontario Energy Board, as arbiter of natural gas and electricity prices, that it lacked the legal authority to implement a special pricing plan to protect vulnerable residents from rising rates.

The ruling means Ontario may soon join jurisdictions in the United States and Europe that have energy affordability programs to help low-income households pay their heat and electricity bills, say anti-poverty activists who have been working on the issue for more than two years.

"With natural gas prices expected to rise by 20 per cent next winter, this is definitely good news," said lawyer Mary Truemner, who argued the case on behalf of the Low-Income Energy Network, a coalition of community legal clinics and organizations that work with people living in poverty.

However, the court did not order the OEB to set special rates for the poor and noted in its decision that the province's Minister of Energy "has not issued any policy statement directing the board to base rates on considerations of the ability to pay."

As a result, the network is now turning to Energy Minister Gerry Phillips to keep the ball rolling, Truemner said.

"We want him to direct the OEB to hold a generic hearing on the impact of rising energy prices on low-income Ontarians facing choices between heating, eating and paying the rent and to consider a rate affordability program," she said.

Households that fall below Statistics Canada's low-income cut-offs should be eligible for help, Truemner said.

In 2006, that applied to any Toronto family of four with an after-tax income of $33,221 or less.

The province has an Emergency Energy Fund and other programs, but the network says they don't cover every household in need.


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