NB Power offers help with heat bills Times & Transcript January 10, 2014

Cecile Cassista
Cole Hobson Times & Transcript
While chilly winter temperatures well below freezing continue to wreak havoc for New Brunswickers in terms of higher power bills, the province’s energy utility said anyone who is struggling to make ends meet should contact them to find a solution.

“We would hope they would call us at the start and not once they get too far behind that it’s much harder to catch up,” said Julie MacNair, a Shediac-based supervisor with customer care for NB Power. “For us that’s really, really important and what we focus on is making successful arrangements, case by case, and really taking the time to hear what their situation is, what they are struggling with and being able to provide each customer what is needed for them to be successful. That’s what we want as well is for them to be able to manage and find solutions.”

MacNair said NB Power is more than willing to work out different solutions for customers and can also give them a host of resources — from ways to help lower their power bill, to numbers for social assistance and aid programs they might qualify for in order to help with the costs.

As an example, MacNair said just yesterday she dealt with a woman whose partner had run into health issues which were creating some unforeseen expenses.

MacNair was able to suggest to this particular customer that plastic over the windows might help, as her home wasn’t incredibly insulated.

She said the average power bill is 60 per cent heating, 20 per cent appliances and the other 20 per cent is hot water.

“The bigger bang for your buck is going to be insulation and making sure your house is well insulated,”she said.

In addition, MacNair was able to recommend the phone numbers for some assistance programs the customer might qualify for.

“There’s also credit counselling that we can provide a phone number too,” she said. “We often ask if a family member can help, a friend or family member. We also go through consumption, because we feel that’s very important that they understand that maybe they have a role to play in the sense that they can have an impact on their consumption. We try to educate them there as well.”

For customers who are in good standing without arrears, but have difficulty paying in the winter months, equalized billing — paying the same averaged bill amount each month then being either reimbursed or debited the difference at year end — is also an option that can be explored.

In addition to the frigid temperatures sending bills soaring, a 2010 freeze on power rate increases was lifted last year as NB Power increased rates by two per cent on Oct. 1, 2013. However, the change accounts for roughly a $3 increase on the monthly power bill of the average New Brunswick family.

Despite the help NB Power is willing to offer, an advocate for senior citizens suggests soaring winter power bills remain a big issue for certain segments of the population.

Cecile Cassista is a Riverview town councillor and also executive director of the Coalition for Seniors’ and Nursing Home Residents’ Rights, She said even personally she has seen her power bills sky rocket recently.
“I’m really concerned about what the heating bill is going to be when it comes in this month. And can you imagine what impact this will have on seniors who have low income?” she said. “Because low-income seniors, they like to keep warm, they like lots of heat and they are going to forgo other goals, good quality food, in order to keep warm. It’s a huge concern.”

Cassita would like to see more power rate subsidy for the province’s most vulnerable and noted many seniors don’t even realize what options there are available to them for help on their bills.
An example is the province’s Home Energy Assistance program, which gives a one-time payment of $100 to New Brunswick families who have a total family income of under $28,000.

“Many seniors last year I have to tell you missed out on that opportunity,” she said.
Increased power bills also has a trickle-down effect into the region’s food banks, where Food Depot Alimentaire’s managing director said they typically see a 15 to 20 per cent usage increase in January, February and March.

“First of all the food banks are coming in to us and asking us for more food because the people are already, after the Christmas rush of course, they’ve already been asking them for their food for the first part of January. I’m sure they are going to be asking the next two or three weeks because they’re not going to have any money left over.”

Gould said a good Christmas push has them able to meet the increased demand at the moment, but he believes social assistance programs should be further tweaked for more support during winter months.
“It’s been going on for years but yet somebody has to really look at that very carefully because the demand is there on the working poor and the working poor that makes $300 a week just can’t cut it,” he said.

“Everybody is going to say that it’s the best we can do, but you have to say that they are not adequate. Let’s face it, the people are affected with big, big power bills in the winter months, it’s just not enough. I’m not saying they aren’t doing their best, I guess they have a budget to follow, but still, we can always do more.”
Gould said the cold weather also has a negative impact on FDA’s bottom line and ability to service the over 20 food banks in the region, as they are hit with increased fuel and heating costs.

“Let’s just hope we get through this cold and we get warmer temperatures to bring it down a bit,” he said.
Anyone who is or might eventually have issues paying their power bill is asked to contact NB Power by phone at 1-800-663-6272 or by email at overdueaccountsinquiry@nbpower.com. General information can also be requested through customerservices@nbpower.com and the utility’s website at www.nbpower.com also provides tips and advice for reducing your power bill.

Meanwhile, application forms for the 2014 benefit under the Home Energy Assistance Program are now available at Service New Brunswick centres and online at www.snb.ca or at www.gnb.ca/Finance. The $100 subsidy is available for those families who have a combined income of under $28,000.
For more information, call the New Brunswick Department of Finance at 1-800-669-7070, Monday to Friday, 8:15 a.m. to 5 p.m.