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Sun., March 25, 2012

Help’s available for utility bills

Spring may be here, but it’s still cold outside. Some people simply cannot afford to heat their homes.

As chairman of the utility watchdog agency in Washington, I struggle with the almost annual rate increase requests by regulated utilities. However, I was pleased to have had the opportunity recently to approve a 6.4 percent rate decrease for Avista’s natural gas customers.

I understand the impact of high energy rates on consumers and our communities. We hear from families having to choose between paying energy bills and buying food or medicine. We hear from people on fixed incomes keeping their homes at dangerously low temperatures to try to eke out some savings.

Many low-income consumers are not aware that, even with winter at an end, there are still resources available to help them with their electric and gas bills. The federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and Avista’s Low-Income Rate Assistance Program (LIRAP) provide funding to qualifying households to assist with their heating bills.

Washington residents can keep the heat on with these energy assistance programs. We might not always be able to control the impacts that higher customer demand and infrastructure upgrades have on the cost to deliver service to your home, but we can help our neighbors keep their heat and lights on during the cold season through these vital programs.

In 2010, more than 600,000 Washington households were eligible to receive financial assistance with their winter heating bills. Only 150,000 households took advantage of these assistance grants. Last year, the average amount of assistance provided was $431 per household. This funding primarily goes to the elderly, disabled and families with children under age 5.

In an effort to balance this burden on low-income customers, the commission increased the contribution level for Avista’s LIRAP program as part of the company’s recent rate request. Funding for LIRAP will now be about $3.6 million for electric customers and $1.8 million for natural gas customers. While the federal LIHEAP program is facing the possibility of $2.5 billion in cuts this year, here in Washington we have taken action at the state level to support energy-assistance resources by increasing assistance funding for regulated companies’ low-income programs.

With a larger number of households needing assistance with their energy bills, these additional funds come at a critical time when charities and community organizations are stretching every dollar to help the people of Washington.

Avista customers can apply for heating assistance directly through the company or through their local community action agency. For more information on locating an assistance agency in your area, or if you need help with a billing dispute, disconnect notice or service complaint, call the commission’s Consumer Protection Help Line at (888) 333-WUTC (9882).

No one should be left in the cold. I urge eligible residents to take advantage of these programs to help stay warm and safe, and for everyone to help look out for neighbors who may need assistance. Nights are still long enough without an added struggle to stay warm.

Jeffrey Goltz is the chairman of the Utilities and Transportation Commission, the state agency charged with regulating private, investor-owned utilities in Washington.

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