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Rhode Island Extends Emergency Protection Rules

Rhode Island state regulators have extended until January 2 emergency rules  to restore gas and electric service to needy residents so they can heat their homes as the temperature drops.

The move comes as shutoffs have hit record levels in the state, a colder winter than last is forecast and LIHEAP funding has been lower than last year’s level.

The three-member Public Utilities Commission voted  to extend a December 1 deadline to regulations that allow service reinstatement and amended payment plans for low-income, unemployed and other “protected” classes of customers who had their service cut off after falling behind on their bills. The provisions, which were also instituted late last year, were reinstated October 7. 

So far in 2010, more Rhode Island households have had their utilities shut off for nonpayment than any other year since the state started tracking the number in 1997. Through the first 10 months of the year, there were 34,498 shutoffs in the state, according to data compiled by the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers. That is more than the total 12-month figures for 2009 — 31,107 — and 2008 — 32,546, the previous record for the state. (The data, based on numbers from National Grid and the Pascoag Utility District, do not factor how many households have had service restored.)

The emergency regulations allow service to be reinstated for protected customers if a down payment is made of 10 percent, 15 percent or 20 percent, depending on how much is owed. A payment plan of 18 months, 24 months or 36 months would then kick in to pay off the balance.

The regular rules require a minimum payment for protected customers of 25 percent for a first-time shutoff, and increases to as much as 50 percent for subsequent terminations. For standard customers, the minimum payment for the first time is 60 percent, and 100 percent, subsequently.

State agencies and community organizations are seeing evidence of the increase in shutoffs, which, they say, is symptomatic of a state with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

“Another record-breaking year,” said Maggi Rogers, a volunteer with the George Wiley Center, a Pawtucket-based antipoverty group. “Our phones are ringing off the hook.” The center pushed for the PUC to extend the utility-restoration program, as did leaders of the General Assembly.

Source: newspapers, RI PUC