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Governor Raimondo to “look into” allowing the restoration of utilities without down payments

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“Having access to running water, hot water, heat, electricity, and sewer are necessities of a habitable home, now more than ever…”


The George Wiley Center is demanding that National Grid, the Narragansett Bay Commission and the other regulated utilities in Rhode Island begin utility restorations for anyone who has had their utilities shut off.

Yesterday, the George Wiley Center advocated before the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to mandate utility restorations. The PUC voted to mandate 10 percent down payments for utility restorations, but the George Wiley Center notes that many cannot afford this, especially during this new recession and pandemic.

“When the state of Rhode Island tells residents to shelter at home for their and the entire state’s well-being, homes must be habitable.” said the George Wiley Center in a letter to the PUC. “Having access to running water, hot water, heat, electricity, and sewer are necessities of a habitable home, now more than ever. In addition to access to utility service, there comes an extra anxiety if a household is protected for only a short period of time, yet left with the perpetual fear of imminent shut-off. We are asking the PUC to extend shut-off protections, allow immediate utility restoration with no down payment for low-income households, to find ways in which payments can be alleviated rather than left to accrue, as well as provide a path toward a long term fix by implementing a PIPP (percentage income payment plan).”

See below for the full letter.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who many are speculating will be Joe Biden the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s pick for Vice President, has signed an executive order restoring water services to Michigan residents with no down payment. The George Wiley Center wants to see the same kind of order here in Rhode Island, expanded to include other utilities such as electricity.

The George Wiley Center asked UpriseRI to ask Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, during her daily COVID-19 press briefing, if she is planing on issuing an executive order similar to the one recently passed by the Governor of Michigan, allowing for the restoration of utilities without any down payment.


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“It’s something I might get to,” answered Governor Raimondo, missing the point of the question. “Right now there’s no need for that because, as just announced, utilities cannot, by action of the PUC be turned off. So I feel good about where we are and people should feel confident that their utilities can’t be turned off.”

Here, Governor Raimondo is noting the PUC’s decision, made yesterday, to prevent utility shutoffs though May 8.

In a follow-up question after the public press briefing, UpriseRI explained that the George Wiley Center question had nothing to do with preventing shutoffs, but was about restoring utilities to people who were shut-off prior to the pandemic, and cannot afford to pay to have their utilities restored.

“Thank you for bringing that to my attention. I don’t know if I have the executive authority to do that, or maybe I’ll go through the PUC [Public Utilities Commission], so let me look at it and get back to you.”

We’ll see if the Governor actually gets back to UpriseRI about this.

Meanwhile, the George Wiley Center will continue to work for free utility restoration, bill debt relief, and the implementation of a Percentage Income Payment Plan (PIPP) for low income Rhode Islanders. Sign the petition for PIPP here.


Here is the full letter from the George Wiley Center to the PUC:

Dear Commissioners,

Please accept these updated comments from the George Wiley Center. Thank you for your directives last month to provide relief for Rhode Island utility customers. We are writing to encourage you to continue and strengthen the utility protections set forth due to the ongoing Covid19 pandemic. This moment in history has shown the gaps in our society’s social safety net, even in prior “normal” times. There has been a spotlight on various issues of economic and social inequality, including morbidity disparities in marginalized and communities of color, unsustainable low wages for many frontline workers, unequal access to healthcare, housing, and food, and also on utility service as a basic need. Around the country and world, elected officials and community members are pushing for protections to ensure that utility services of heat, electricity, water, sewage, and communication remain in place for households during this crisis. The silver lining in these times is that we are given an opportunity to solve some of society’s inequities, not only in the short term, but also more long term, to create compassionate policies for a more humane and sustainable future.

The George Wiley Center is a grassroots group with a major focus in recent decades on advocating for utility consumer rights. While our office is currently closed to walk-ins and in-person meetings, and most of our staff and volunteers are at home, we are still communicating and offering assistance to people facing shut-off, via phone, email, and social media. I have personally heard from many people who are facing multiple issues, concerned not only about utility termination, but also eviction, deportation, and food access. Our lives and concerns are intertwined, and we see how an inability to afford utility service can exacerbate other challenges and access to basic needs, and vice versa. In this era when everyone is under stress, we hope the PUC will take decisive action to alleviate the extra stress of worrying about utility termination.

When the state of Rhode Island tells residents to shelter at home for their and the entire state’s well-being, homes must be habitable. Having access to running water, hot water, heat, electricity, and sewer are necessities of a habitable home, now more than ever. In addition to access to utility service, there comes an extra anxiety if a household is protected for only a short period of time, yet left with the perpetual fear of imminent shut-off. We are asking the PUC to extend shut-off protections, allow immediate utility restoration with no down payment for low-income households, to find ways in which payments can be alleviated rather than left to accrue, as well as provide a path toward a long term fix by implementing a PIPP (percentage income payment plan).

For people who have never been shut off or faced shut-off, utility service is something that plays as a background to daily life. It’s one of those things that many don’t recognize how important it is until it’s gone, whether due to the occasional weather outage or deliberate shut-off for nonpayment of bills. The George Wiley Center strongly advocates for utility service as a basic need at all times, pre- and post-pandemic as well, and during these times the stakes are even higher.

With many people staying at home nearly 24/7 during the pandemic, our homes’ livability is critical. We need heat to keep ourselves warm and healthy. We need electricity to attend school and work meetings, charge our phones to keep in touch with loved ones we can’t visit, and stay informed of daily news and updates. Per governmental directive, we use water to wash our hands, do our laundry, and clean our homes. We store extra food in freezers and refrigerators and cook meals at home all day long. We use our computers and phones to access vital services such as unemployment insurance, updating our healthcare plans, and consulting our doctors. From home we rely on our utilities to reach mental health services, peer and recovery support groups. We plug in electric wheelchairs to get charged up, we turn on our sewing machines to make protective cloth masks, we put on the tv to watch movies and unwind from the extra stress of the pandemic. In addition to the ways in which homes are typically used, they have now also become de facto schools for kindergarten through college. Homes are now workplaces, illness recovery centers, restaurants, gyms, doctor’s offices, public meeting spaces, and public service arenas. And for those who have no access to utility service, there is no escape to the public library or cafe or church to warm your hands, use the internet, or charge your cell phone.

Even in times prior to the pandemic, many households have to juggle bills, deciding from one month to the next what will get sacrificed: food or a child’s new shoes, electricity or health insurance. With the current crisis and unemployment sky rocketing, these bill juggling decisions have become more widespread and more intensified for those who had already faced longer term economic insecurity. Even in pre-pandemic times the charitable organizations that help people pay utility bills are overwhelmed, but now with the extra multiple areas of need we can not expect these organizations to be able to cover everyone’s bills. Furthermore, social service agencies, food banks, and hotlines are being inundated, making it even more difficult for people to seek assistance. With utility shut-offs often being a factor that leads to homelessness, it is vital to keep as many people in their homes at this time, when congregate settings are deemed a high risk for contagion and homeless shelters are stretched thin with services. Many people who have applied for Unemployment Insurance are still waiting to receive benefits and have experienced a major loss of income. And with people staying at home all day using additional utility services (that would normally be used at their schools, workplaces, etc.), we can anticipate that incurred utility bills will be even higher than normal. This is a terrible combination: relying on services that are critical to most aspects of life, facing higher payments for such services at the moment when you can least afford it, and living with the ongoing stress of an upcoming termination after the crisis is over because back bills have piled up.

For the above reasons, we hope the PUC agrees that utility services, including water, electricity, gas, and sewer are basic needs, now and always. The George Wiley Center is asking that you implement the following using your powers in the interest of public health and well-being:

  • Continue a moratorium on utility shut-offs for the duration of the pandemic and implement a permanent moratorium on shut-offs for low-income households
  • Require restoration of utility service with no down payment for low-income households
  • No penalties for missed payments, including for the AMP program, for the duration of the pandemic
  • Cancel or deeply discount utility payments, so as not to accrue large back debts, for low-income households for the duration of the pandemic
  • Emergency implementation of a PIPP (percentage income payment plan) program for the long term, for low-income households

While we thank National Grid for acting in accordance with the PUC’s directives, we also think the company can do more. For instance, due to the Covid19 pandemic, Cox Communications has offered to provide internet service to low-income households for free for the first month, with a deeply discounted $10/month bill in the months after. We saw the data from National Grid in answer to the questions raised by the PUC regarding any changes in the company’s income. National Grid reported a dip in income, but did not quantify or correlate the corresponding rise in temperature and length of daylight, which could also contribute to a decrease in demand and therefore income for the company. When further analyzing National Grid’s financial status, we recommend the following additional inquiries:

What is the yearly and monthly profit from National Grid’s business in RI (electric and gas) for the past 5 years?

What is the difference in profit National Grid has made, comparing month to month averages, in the time period since the company’s allowable profit margin was significantly increased as part of the rate case settlement in 2018?

The company cites extra costs incurred for cleaning during the pandemic. It would be useful to know other cost differences that have resulted from the pandemic. For instance, what if any cost differences has the company incurred or saved on, due to staff largely working from home and offices being semi-shut (ie not using company office utility services), if applicable? What if any savings has the company had in terms of staffing expenses, if any employees have been laid off due to the pandemic?

We are aware that National Grid has been in communication with the federal government, inquiring about “critical services infrastructure”. What if any funds does the company anticipate receiving from the federal government? This is a moment when large corporations such as National Grid can step up to support the communities that have enriched them. We think there are many ways the company could voluntarily alleviate utility bill burden, for example creating a hardship fund, using some profits from prior years to forgive bills for low-income households, volunteering to forgo profits during the economic crisis, cutting CEO and executive salaries and bonuses, committing to pass on federal Covid19 stimulus funds to ratepayers, deeply discounting rates for low-income households, and/or implementing a PIPP program.

In addition to National Grid’s role, we hope the PUC and Division of Public Utilities will also use their power and relationship with various stakeholders to come up with creative solutions to protect our communities while keeping the various local utility companies whole. This could include working with elected officials on the federal and local level to use any CARES Act or other federal funds toward maintaining public utility service and directly paying consumers’ bills, or as previously mentioned enacting a PIPP program.

While no one can physically attend today’s open meeting, many are waiting in anticipation for the PUC’s decision. Over the past few years we have had almost two thousand Rhode Islanders sign our petition for PIPP, both people who have themselves struggled with affording utilities and people who are concerned for our fellow community members’ access to basic needs.

Below are just a few statements from people who have signed in the past few weeks:

Currently no heat or hot water. Also have three school age children in my home. One of whom has a “medical protection” in place. All three boys started colds yesterday. National Grid refuses to take a down payment of a huge bill to restore service. My boys have started colds due to no heat or hot water to fight the germs. I have called them numerous times at an attempt to pay a down payment and restore service, each time being told the whole bill needs to be paid to restore. $2,700 of the bill isn’t even mine to pay. That amount was transferred to me the day I turned the gas on! National Grid set me up in the hole that I can’t get out of.” – Amie from Riverside (EP) 3/22/2020

It was about 2 weeks, and due to being laid off from work. It made living there difficult, especially when it was cold. I relied on going to other buildings or my car to stay warm, and buying gallons of water and refilling them for showers and cooking.” – Dominique, Cumberland 3/22/2020

For about a week. It was awful because I have children so it was really hard for them due to the fact that it was the cold around the time that it happened.” –Tatiana, Johnston 3/22/2020

There have been times when I was threatened to have my power shut off and had it shut off once. I had to take out a loan to have power restored, unable to pay these loans back I had to file bankruptcy, in turn this damaged my credit making it difficult to rent.”-Jay, West Warwick 3/20/2020

I remember it was for a few months. Showering cold was very uncomfortable. Heat was off and made living in the house difficult without always wearing multiple layers. Access to in home utilities such as tap water, heat, electricity, and natural gas, should be, in my opinion, a human right.” -Christopher, Johnston 3/19/2020

Due to another tenant in my dwelling not being able to afford the bill & not being able to access the dwelling, they shut off service to the entire dwelling.” -Dwayne, Providence 3/18/2020

In this moment, we hope the PUC will consider this opportunity to fix structural inequities that have existed in our utility service systems for too long. We urge you to enact protections for an extended time so people don’t have to carry the extra stress of not knowing when they may be shut off, once the crisis is officially deemed to be over. We also hope you will find a way to eliminate accruing bill payments for low-income Rhode Islanders for the duration of the pandemic, so when the economy opens back up there will not be a spike in shut-offs and an intensification of existing economic inequality. Thank you for your leadership on this issue and for considering the public health and well-being of Rhode Islanders.

Sincerely,

Camilo Viveiros
Executive Director, George Wiley Center

Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading. atomicsteve@gmail.com