Special rate eyed for New Brunswick poor

FREDERICTON, NEW BRUNSWICK - NB Power should introduce a special discount rate for electricity for people with low incomes, says Bethany Thorne-Dykstra, president of Voice of Real Poverty Inc.

"It would be vitally important," she said. "Heat is not a luxury in New Brunswick. You need it to survive."

Moncton-based Voice of Real Poverty met with Energy Minister Jack Keir and Social Development Minister Mary Schryer in August to pitch four ideas to help low-income New Brunswickers.

Those ideas included a discount energy rate, revising the policy on the economic unit for those on social assistance to allow more sharing of expenses, a better winter no-disconnect policy for NB Power and the upgrading of social housing.

"What we are seeing and what we are hearing from a whole lot of organizations is that the single person (on social assistance) is having a really hard time," said Thorne-Dykstra.

"Even the working poor are going to face a really difficult time with heat."

She said the cost of furnace oil and electricity is going up faster than increases in minimum wage.

Maine and Ontario power utilities are both working on a similar policy to provide lower energy costs for low-income people, said Thorne-Dykstra.

Vanda Wall, an Ontario Energy Board communications and public affairs adviser, said the board has just wrapped up hearings into the issue of an energy discount for low-income residents.

"Whether it comes into place, I can't even speculate," she said.

Thorne-Dykstra said Voice of Real Poverty also pitched the idea of a special energy rate for low-income people at the recent meeting of the New Brunswick Energy and Utilities Board in Saint John. The board was examining a three per cent rate hike requested by NB Power. The board ruled that hearing didn't have the authority to review the request, but brought it to Keir's attention.

Thorne-Dykstra said Keir and Schryer reacted positively to the advocacy group's presentation during the August meeting.

"They are telling us that there is going to be a big announcement coming up," she said. "We are very anxious to hear what that is. Maybe there won't be a need for a power rate discount."

Heather MacLean, spokeswoman for NB Power, said the utility is aware of the proposal.

"We are not in a position to implement a new rate," she said. MacLean said the utility gets many requests for special rates. "We cannot be in the position to say yes or no to anyone," she said.

She said Voice of Real Poverty would have to go to the energy and utilities board and the special rate would have to be debated in public.

But Thorne-Dykstra said NB Power already has different rates for different industrial users.

"That tells me they can do it for low-income families," she said.

Opposition energy critic Bruce Northrup said he likes the idea of a special energy rate for low-income New Brunswickers.

"I would like to know more details about it," he said. "Low-income families and our seniors need some help."

Northrup said more than 600 customers were disconnected by NB Power under its no-disconnect policy last winter while the utility had a profit of $58 million.



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