Friday, August 08, 2008

National Grid Modifies Policy Denying Service to Minors Living Independently

PULP petitioned the PSC for emergency relief in March 2008 on behalf of a young parent denied utility service by Niagara Mohawk d/b/a National Grid. Without utility service she and the father of her child, also under 18, could not occupy the apartment they had rented.

The PSC's Office of Consumer Services Hotline decision had supported the utility in its decision to deny service. PULP sought a declaratory ruling of the Commission to the effect that the utility's untariffed policy of denying service to persons under 18 years of age who live independently from their parents who are not receiving public assistance. See National Grid Policy of Denying Utility Service to Minors Challenged.

After the petition for Commission review of the Hotline decision was filed, the Office of Consumer Services Hotline and National Grid reversed their prior positions, and service was finally provided to the applicant.

The petition was then treated as an ordinary complaint to be decided by the Office of Consumer Services rather than the Commission itself. On July 28, 2008 the Office of Consumer Services of the Department of Public Service wrote to PULP stating
We contacted National Grid regarding this matter and requested that they respond directly to the points in your complaint. National Grid has responded and informed our office that its current policy requires the utility to provide service to minors 16 years of age or older who provide the following documentation following an application for service:
- Proof of receipt of public assistance in the minor's name
- Proof that they are self-supporting (i.e., pay stub) and
- a notarized lease, notarized landlord's statement or deed in the applicant' s name demonstrating they are living separately from (or independent of) their family
This policy has been reviewed by our Office of General Counsel who confirmed this position is within the limitations of the Home Energy Fair Practices Act (HEFPA). National Grid has informed us that this policy has been communicated to its Syracuse and Niagara Falls Contact Centers to prevent any application difficulties in the future."
PULP was not provided and did not see National Grid's ex parte response regarding its policy, or the document articulating the "current" policy, and so PULP had no opportunity to comment on it prior to the Office of Consumer Services determination of the complaint. In the past, National Grid, when policies have been challenged regarding deposits and payment agreements, has adopted slightly different policies with the tacit approval of the Office of Consumer Services that still resulted in delay or denial of service or imposition of requirements that created hardship for utility service applicants.

Although the individual applicant has obtained service, and National Grid has modified its policy to recognize the right of a minor living independently to obtain utility service, there are problems with the new policy. For example:
  • A minor living independently might be self supporting without a pay stub.
  • A lease can be unwritten
  • A lease need not be notarized
  • A lease may have expired and the tenant has a month to month tenancy
  • A landlord need not notarize documents and may not be cooperative
  • The documentation requirements may create delays
These revised requirements are not contained in the Home Energy Fair Practices Act. The purpose of HEFPA is to foster continuous residential service without unreasonable qualifications. Adding time consuming documentation requirements can result in households going without safe utility service for additional periods of time, adding to the risk of harm to them and their neighbors. See Candle Fires: A Symptom of "Rolling Blackouts" Affecting Low-Income Households.

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