Friday, February 27, 2009

NTIA to Hold Meetings on How to Use Broadband Stimulus Money

In the February 24th Federal Register, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (“NTIA”) announced that it will begin holding hearings on March 2nd to discuss the broadband grant program. NTIA, a bureau within the U.S. Department of Commerce, is the President's principal adviser on telecommunications and information policy issues.

NTIA is scheduling meetings to afford interested parties the opportunity to discuss implementation of the Broadband Grant Programs as described in the Broadband Data Services Improvement Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (also known as the Stimulus Package). The Broadband Data Services Improvement Act was enacted in October 2008 and directs the Secretary of Commerce to award grants to eligible entities on a competitive basis to assess, identify, and track broadband service deployment in each State. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act enacted in February 2009 directs NTIA to establish the ‘‘Broadband Technology Opportunities Program’’ to make grants available on a competitive basis to accelerate and expand broadband deployment. Parties must explain how their proposal will help deploy broadband to unserved and underserved areas.

According to a February 25 Commerce Department Press Release:

The Recovery Act provides critical funding for programs at NTIA including:

  • $4.7 billion to establish a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program for awards to eligible entities to develop and expand broadband services to rural and underserved areas and improve access to broadband by public safety agencies.
    • Of these funds, $250 million will be available for innovative programs that encourage sustainable adoption of broadband services;
    • At least $200 million will be available to upgrade technology and capacity at public computing centers, including community colleges and public libraries;
    • $10 million will be a transfer to the Office of Inspector General for the purposes of BTOP audits and oversight.
    • Up to $350 million of the BTOP funding is designated for the development and maintenance of statewide broadband inventory maps.
  • $650 million for the TV Converter Box Coupon Program to allow NTIA to issue coupons to all households currently on the waiting list, to start mailing coupons via first class mail and to ensure vulnerable populations are prepared for the transition from analog-to-digital television transmission.
Among other things, NTIA also oversees the coupon program for digital television (DTV) converter boxes. (For more information about DTV, search this blog for "DTV.")

Lou Manuta

How to Dial Your Rotary Phone

The transition to digital television (DTV) requires significant change for many customers who do not have cable or satellite TV or newer TV sets. The need to adapt to technological change, and the importance of simple clear information is evident.

Compare the instructions on "How to Dial a Rotary Phone" with "Digital TV Converter Box Installation Instructions."

For further information on the DTV transition, search this blog for "DTV."

New York State Assembly Committees to Hold Hearings on NYISO Wholesale Electricity Pricing

The New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Energy and the Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions will be holding joint hearings on the wholesale electricity pricing of the New York State Independent System Operator (NYISO) at the Chancellors' Hall of the State Education Building in Albany on March 5 at 10:30.

The Notice of the Hearing states:

In 1996, the Public Service Commission issued Opinion No. 96-12. This order for "de-regulation" called for the transition to a wholesale electricity market structure which, among other results, directed traditional utilities to divest themselves of generation and created a wholesale electricity market coordinated by the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO). The price of electricity would no longer be determined by the cost of generating it, but by a market-based system. The goal was that electricity prices would be controlled by rigorous retail competition, promoting lower prices, efficiency and new generation. It is unclear whether this has been achieved.

The NYISO is a not-for-profit corporation, approved and overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that began operating in 1999 to administer the state's wholesale electricity markets. This hearing will examine the policies and practices of the NYISO related to the market clearing price on the electric commodity cost to consumers.

For a review of some NYISO issues see:

States that "restructured" like New York, allowing utilities to sell off their power plants and buy electricity for customers in wholesale power markets, have seen higher increases than states which retained traditional state regulation over power generation, and some have been conducting hearings and looking for new ways to bring electricity rates under control. See Pennsylvania Utility Regulator Holds Hearings on Flaws in Wholesale Power Markets.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

PSC Asked to Offset its $330M Efficiency Surcharges with $220M from Sale of Greenhouse Gas Allowances

This week, Multiple Intervenors, a group of industrial and other large electricity-consuming customers, filed a petition at the PSC this week seeking a declaratory ruling to reduce the PSC-created $334 million System Benefit Charge ("SBC") by the expected annual revenue of $220 million from the sale of Greenhouse Gas Allowances. The February 24 petition states:
The need for such an offset is especially compelling given the extremely high cost of electricity in New York, as well as the current economic conditions. Considering these factors and the burdens they place on the State’s businesses and residents, the Commission must take all reasonable actions to avoid the imposition of unnecessary costs and surcharges on electricity customers.
The SBC was created by the PSC without enabling legislation to collect money through electric utility customer bill surcharges to be used to advance energy efficiency. The PSC directs money collected by the utilities to be turned over to a state authority, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), and then NYSERDA contracts with providers to spend the money.

The use of the SBC funds is decided by the PSC, and implemented by NYSERDA. It is not appropriated by the legislature. NYSERDA has used funds to give grants to landlords to submeter electricity, shifting their bills to tenants for inefficient fixtures and equipment still owned by the landlords. See PSC and NYSERDA Spend Millions for Submetering Projects Violating Residential Tenants' Rights.

The PSC nearly doubled the amount of the surcharges last year in order to raise the SBC fund from $175 million/year to $334 million/year in a June 23, 2008 Order in its generic energy efficiency proceeding stating:
The electric System Benefits Charge (SBC) is augmented such that beginning on October 1, 2008, the annual level of overall SBC electric revenue collections is increased from $175 million, as previously established, to $334,307,002. . . .
In a parallel development, substantial new revenues are beginning to flow to NYSERDA from the state's sale of greenhouse gas allowances in the RGGI program. According to the RGGI website,
The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is the first mandatory, market-based effort in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ten Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states will cap and then reduce CO2 emissions from the power sector 10% by 2018.

States will sell emission allowances through auctions and invest proceeds in consumer benefits: energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other clean energy technologies. RGGI will spur innovation in the clean energy economy and create green jobs in each state.
The revenues from the sale of the allowances are not appropriated by the legislature. According to the Governor's December 19, 2008 press release after the first RGGI auction,
New York's share of the auction proceeds will be approximately $42 million.

New York plans to use the proceeds from the RGGI auction to fund energy efficiency and renewable energy programs and services and other greenhouse gas reduction strategies. The RGGI regulations require that the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) use the proceeds for energy efficiency, renewable energy, programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in other sectors of the economy and other initiatives.
In its 2007 comments on NYSERDA regulations concerning use of the RGGI allowance sale proceeds, PULP urged NYSERDA to target substantial RGGI allowance revenues to benefit low income consumers. See PULP Urges NYSERDA to Use RGGI Auction Revenue to Support Low Income Energy Efficiency Programs. NYSERDA did not adopt PULP's recommendation and there is no regulatory setaside of RGGI funds for low-income energy efficiency.

Due to the uniform clearing price feature of the NYISO markets, the resulting higher prices will be paid for all wholesale electricity in the state. Fossil fuel generators will incorporate the price of RGGI allowances in their NYISO spot market bids, and these will set the clearing price for all producers -- even those who make electricity with uranium, water or wind, whose costs do not rise because they do not need to buy RGGI allowances.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Judge Who Issued Gag Order Against PULP in Utility Service Denial Case Resigns in Disgrace

The state supreme court judge who issued an ex parte order in 2001 to gag PULP and chill public discussion of the Velma Fordham case records has resigned in the aftermath of his effort to fix a case involving drunk driving charges against a former prosecutor who taught at Buffalo Law School. According to a Feb. 21, 2009 article in the Buffalo News:
State Supreme Court Justice Joseph G. Makowski resigned Friday in disgrace, and former prosecutor Anne E. Adams pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors for their roles in trying to clear her in a drunken-driving case.

"They tried to fix a case, and they got caught," District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said. "His reputation is disgraced," Sedita said of Makowski. "Her conduct was disgraceful."

Makowski, 55, avoided criminal charges by recanting an affidavit he submitted in September, cooperating with prosecutors, agreeing to testify against Adams and resigning as a State Supreme Court justice.
See also, Makowski resigns as State Supreme Court justice, State is probing tie to friend's DWI case; Judge Resigns After Trying To Cover Up DWI Case; Hamburg Police Officer Vindicated in DWI Case Against Lawyer; Judge resigns after DWI coverup scandal - Justice Joseph Makowski abruptly resigned; Makowski Exit as Judge Doesn't Preclude Possible Disbarment.

Makowski issued an ex parte order in 2001 that had the effect of gagging PULP and the Attorney General from discussing papers filed at the PSC by NFG in the case of a Buffalo woman who died in 2000 of hypothermia after being denied service in violation of HEFPA, and after the utility refused an Emergency HEAP payment. As stated by the PSC in its order commencing an investigation of the death of the customer, Velma Fordham:
When Ms. Fordham left National Fuel's Customer Assistance Center on November 29, 2000, she visited the Erie County Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. According to company records, Ms. Fordham qualified for two payments (emergency and basic) under the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) totaling $710. She then returned to National Fuel with her HEAP authorization, but the NFG representative still denied her service.
Eventually the administrative case was settled by the PSC and NFG. See NFG Not Penalized for Woman Freexing to Death.

Subsequently a private wrongful death lawsuit that had been dismissed by Judge Makowski was reinstated. The Appellate Division held that a utility can be held liable for violations of HEFPA and rebuked Makowski for his orders sealing public records. See Lawsuit Involving Death of Velma Fordham Settled by National Fuel. See also, PULP's website page on the Velma Fordham Case.

* * * * *
Will there be more tragic cases like the case of Velma Fordham? Perhaps. Nearly a decade after her death, OTDA and the PSC still allow utilities to decide whether to provide service to a customer who receives an Emergency HEAP payment. OTDA and the PSC have been capitulating to the private utilities instead of protecting customers in the OTDA vendor agreements and with PSC regulatory oversight.

Allowing utilities to pick and choose which eligible HEAP recipients have service risks lives, as in the case of Velma Fordham, and frustrates the purpose of Emergency HEAP, which is to promptly resolve crisis situations. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Act (LIHEAA) requires the state plan for HEAP to resolve emergencies within 24 or 48 hours depending on urgency of the circumstances. In PULP's recent comments to OTDA we repeated our longstanding urgings that OTDA toughen up its vendor agreements with utilities to require utilities, as a condition of their receiving direct vendor payments, to provide service whenever an Emergency HEAP payment is proffered. See PULP Files Comments on Improving Next Year's HEAP Program.

The PSC also has power to direct utilities to resume service whenever an Emergency HEAP payment is proffered.

Instead of promoting the public interest in continuous utility service to residential customers, however, the PSC instead has issued letters to utilities asking them only to minimize the number of cases in which the utility rejects HEAP and leaves customers without service. The PSC thus supports the position of utilities that they are not obligated to provide service when an Emergency HEAP payment is proffered, as they clearly must under Public Service Law 65-b when they receive a four-month partial payment of arrears under Social Services Law 131-s, and has not asked the legislature to correct its perceived powerlessness to protect low-income customers.

These weak PSC supplications to the utilities by the agency charged to regulate could be seen as "comfort letters" that would serve to defend the utility legal position in court if a person dies or is injured after an Emergency HEAP grant is refused.

In light of the lack of any real action by OTDA and the PSC on this issue, the continued risk to public health and welfare when households lack safe utility service, and frustration of the language and purpose of LIHEAA and HEFPA, the story of Velma Fordham illustrates the need for the legislature to act to clarify the duties of the utilities when an Emergency HEAP grant is proffered.

Monday, February 23, 2009

PULP Files Comments on PSC Proposal to Relax Submetering Rules

On February 23, 2009 PULP filed its comments on proposals of the PSC Staff to "Streamline" existing rules of the agency that apply to submetering and the sale of electric service by landlords to their tenants. The opportunity to file informal comments was provided after a technical conference held in January. See PSC to Hold Technical Conference on Electricity Submetering Issues; Submetering Technical Conference Postponed to January.

The "streamlining" proposed by PSC would get rid of the requirement for individual PSC orders granting an exception to the general rule against the reselling of utility service. PULP urged instead that more attention be paid to consumer interests, recommending that any new regulations spell out tenant protection and energy efficiency requirements, including that:
  • electricity will not be deemed under leases to be “additional rent,”
  • responsibility for space heating not be transferred from landlords to tenants,
  • in no instance will tenants be charged more than a direct service customer of the traditional utility would be charged for full service,
  • each bill for submetered service show a comparison with utility charges.
  • express tenant consent be obtained for any "time of use" or "real time" pricing, and that such pricing will not be mandated in any leases,
  • submetered service be provided with no markup for profit, and that landlords' books and records of all charges will be kept subject to commission audit and review,
  • before submetering begins, the building and major energy-consuming appliances owned by the landlord meet NYSERDA-specified energy efficiency benchmarks, documented by an energy audit by a NYSERDA-approved contractor,
  • a tenant impact assessment be conducted to identify consumption history, seasonal usage patterns, impact on low-income tenants, anticipated average charges and estimated average financial impacts for typical apartments,
  • there be a sound plan for providing outreach and education services to tenants,
  • the prospective submeterer and its agents have received basic HEFPA training,
  • certification that tenants are actually informed of HEFPA and other rights they will have as utility consumers prior to submetering, including information about the PSC complaint determination process, and
  • there be timely notification of tenants to permit their input on the application for submetering.
PULP pointed out that once the landlord has rid himself of the obligation to pay electric bills he may have less incentive to improve thermal efficiency of the structure with windows and insulation, and less incentive to replace energy wasting appliances.

PULP also questioned whether there is sufficient reliable evidence to support claims made by submetering proponents of large electricity usage reductions due to changes in tenant behavior after responsibility for service is put in their names. The report of such savings repeatedly relied on by the Commission is old, involved only three buildings, and was performed by the same submetering consultant who also co-authored the 2001 NYSERDA Submetering Manual and who is a petitioner in dozens of cases seeking waiver of the general prohibition against submetering. The NYSERDA Manual at page 30 suggests that landlords may want to evict tenants and circumvent utility customer rights and remedies under the Public Service Law.
See PSC and NYSERDA Spend Millions for Submetering Projects Violating Residential Tenants' Rights.

For further information search this blog for "submetering" and see PULP's website page on submetering.

Nebraska Energy Office Shows New York Electricity Prices Second Highest in Continental U.S.

One might search all day but ultimately in vain at the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) or the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) websites for a comparison of the electric rates New Yorkers pay with those paid by consumers in other states.

Perhaps the PSC and NYSERDA are not proud of the impact on consumers after a decade of relentless state deregulation efforts. See Disconnected Policymakers.

The Nebraska Energy Office prepares a user friendly chart comparing electricity costs in all 50 states. It reveals that the prices New Yorkers paid for electricity were the second highest in the continental United States. The Nebraska chart is based on the year-to-date data from EIA for 2008, through November.

New York's rates ducked under several states in the New England ISO region in the month of November 2008, the most recent month for which EIA data is available. Apparently the NYISO summer price spikes - see New Shocker from Con Ed: Forget 13% Hike, Now It's 22%, - which occurred when customer usage and bills are highest, and market gaming costs shifted by the NYISO to consumers - see Shocking Power Scam Jolt$ NY Consumers - outweighed the New England ISO prices during the year-to-date period.

It is true that some of the lowest cost states rely heavily on lower cost coal to produce electricity, such as the lowest cost state, West Virginia.

However, New York has generous amounts of hydropower and nuclear power that is even cheaper to produce than coal power. As a result of the PSC deregulation regime, the value of this low cost power shifted from consumers to producers. New York utilities sold their power plants, and now must they pay what the most expensive deregulated seller can obtain in the flawed NYISO wholesale markets. The NYISO has a cartel-like market design in which all sellers are paid the same, no matter whether the power is produced by cheap hydropower, or by expensive natural gas. See It Was the [NYISO] Market.

This did not occur in states that did not adopt the deregulated system that was heavily promoted by Enron, and so the gap between New York and other states' electricity prices has spread. See the Comparison of New York rates with rates in traditionally regulated states prepared by Power in the Public Interest. Also, see Why Are Electricity Prices in RTOs Increasingly Expensive? and Connecticut Energy Policy: Critical Times – Critical Decisions, by McCullough Research, a group that led the investigation and exposure of Enron's spot market manipulation in the West.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bronx Tenant Association Objects to PSC Staff Proposal to "Streamline" Electric Submetering Rules

As we have previously reported, the PSC Staff is proposing to revise the agency's regulations to "streamline" the approval process for landlord sale of electric service to residential tenants, known as "submetering." See PSC to Hold Technical Conference on Electricity Submetering Issues; Submetering Technical Conference Postponed to January.

Submetering is entirely a creation of the PSC. There is no legislation authorizing residential submetering. Indeed, under the plain language of the Public Service Law Section 2, the only situation where a landlord can sell electricity to tenants is when the landlord is a railroad or streetcar company; otherwise, all retail electric service must be provided and sold only by an electric company that has a certificate from the Commission.

The PSC prohibited the practice of submetering in 1951, calling it "parasitic," and required all utilities to adopt tariffs prohibiting any retail resale of their service. That decision to end submetering and require direct utility service to all customers was affirmed by the state's highest court in Campo v. Feinberg. Submetering was later resurrected by the PSC for coops and condos, where the owners wanted to implement it.

Still later, the PSC extended submetering to ordinary multiple family rental housing, where the interests of owners and tenants are not the same. Under a system of orders allowing waiver of the tariff prohibitions on resale of utility service, the PSC constructed a system in which -- on paper -- tenants would not pay more than direct utility metered customers and they would not lose customer protections.

Reality, however, does not reflect the PSC's paper scheme. Customers are aggrieved by landlord overcharges and failure to provide HEFPA protections. Some are brought to court over disputed bills without notice and recourse to administrative PSC complaint procedures required by HEFPA. Low income tenants in submetering buildings cannot get emergency grants to pay utility bills because, instead of sending advance termination notices, as utilities do, landlords deem their electric service charges to be "additional rent" and bring eviction cases.

A Bronx group, the Hazel Towers Tenants Association and its members have made complaints to the PSC challenging major violations of the existing orders. The landlord then retained the law firm of a former PSC Chairman on whose watch many buildings were submetered. Their well-documented and easily determined complaints of overcharges and noncompliance with requirements of the PSC submetering order regarding their buildings have not been decided after many months. Indeed, the association's complaint has not even been answered.

The Hazel Towers Tenants Association has filed comments on the PSC Staff's draft regulations, asking the PSC to turn its attention to more enforcement of existing requirements of the applicable submetering orders, and opposing any further relaxation of the submetering requirements for the benefit of landlords and the submetering industry.

For further information visit PULP's website page on submetering, and search this blog for additional posts on "submetering."

DTV Converter Installation Instructions

Many lower income households do not subscribe to cable and do not have new TVs that are ready for digital television. After the DTV conversion, their sets will not work to receive broadcast television without a converter box. For a helpful video demonstrating how to hook up the converter box click here.

PULP Files Comments on Improving Next Year's HEAP Program

The HEAP "block grant"program allows great flexibility to states in tailoring eligibility conditions and benefit amounts, within the broad contours of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Act (LIHEAA). One of the requirements of LIHEAA is that states must conduct needs assessments and hearings on their draft plan before they finalize the State Plan that is eventually submitted by the Governor for federal approval.

On February 13, 2009 PULP submitted its comments regarding the needs assessment and possible changes in next year's plan. In light of increased unemployment, it is likely that the pool of households eligible for HEAP will grow significantly.

PULP focused its comments in the following areas:

The need for more efficient administration
There have been widespread difficulties this year faced by applicants unable to apply, who did not receive timely decisions on submitted applications as required by federal law, and who lacked recourse through a functioning hotline system to resolve administrative problems

PULP cited the need for expansion of the role of community based outreach services and application expediters, in light of the current application bottlenecks and the expected increase in the number of households applying for aid next year.

PULP also cited the apparent need for more auditing oversight of compliance with LIHEAA requirements intended to promote the right to apply for and receive a prompt decision on eligibility for benefits, and asked for additional OTDA analysis of the eligible population in light of expanded eligbility standards and rising unemployment

Vendor Contract Issues
PULP recommended reform of HEAP vendor agreements negotiated between energy providers and OTDA, including provisions that would
  • forbid vendors from refusing to accept Emergency HEAP
  • Clearly require payments to be credited to bills for service received in the current winter season and not to arrears that are the subject of DPAs in good standing or in abeyance under SSL 131-s
  • Require as a condition of vendor payment that utilities demonstrate efforts to implement low income rates
Benefit Redesign
PULP proposed redesign of benefit levels for households with heat included in rent, and expansion of automatic benefit issuance.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

FERC Effort to Override State Transmission Siting Decisions Rejected by Federal Appeals Court

We previously discussed FERC's assertion of power to override state transmission line siting decisions. See FERC Adopts Electricity Transmission Siting Rules: Says it Can Reverse State Denials, PULP Network, December 16, 2006. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected FERC's effort which would have enabled it to preempt state transmission line authority, stating in its decision:
FERC interprets § 216(b)(1)(C)(i)’s phrase "withheld approval for more than 1 year after the filing of [a permit] application" to include a state’s outright denial of an application within one year. We conclude that FERC’s interpretation is contrary to the plain meaning of the statute. Simply put, the statute does not give FERC permitting authority when a state has affirmatively denied a permit application within the one year deadline. * * * *
The Commission’s reading would mean that Congress has told state commissions that they will lose jurisdiction unless they approve every permit application in a national interest corridor. Under such a reading it would be futile for a state commission to deny a permit based on traditional considerations like cost and benefit, land use and environmental impacts, and health and safety. It would be futile, in other words, for a commission to do its normal work. * * * * In short, § 216(b)(1), read as a whole, does not indicate that Congress intended to bring about the sweeping transfer of jurisdiction suggested by FERC. Indeed, if Congress had intended to take the monumental step of preempting state jurisdiction every time a state commission denies a permit in a national interest corridor, it would surely have said so directly.
Piedmont Environmental Council, et al. v. FERC, (4th Cir. No. 07-1651, Feb. 18, 2009). This decision means that if the New York Public Service Commission denies an application for builing a new electric transmission line, the state decision cannot be trumped by FERC. See Court Ruling Hailed by NYRI Opponents.

Friday, February 13, 2009

New York Weatherization Funding Bolstered by Federal Stimulus Bill

According to the National Community Action Foundation, New York stands to receive approximately $404.23 Million in additional funding for home weatherization activities under the Recovery Act. Weatherization programs have multiple benefits: reducing home energy costs for lower income New Yorkers, improving the environment, providing good jobs and training, and reducing reliance on foreign oil supplies.

What a difference a year makes. See Bush Proposes Elimination of Low Income Home Weatherization Program, Feb. 11, 2008.

Governor Paterson Renominates Two PSC Commissioners

With terms of two seats on the Public Service Commission expiring on February 1st, Governor David Paterson opted on February 9th to renominate the sitting members whose terms expired, Chairman Garry Brown and Commissioner Patricia Acampora, to new six year terms. Brown was appointed a little over a year ago by former Governor Spitzer to complete an unexpired term; Acampora was appointed in 2005 by former Governor Pataki and served for about a year as Chairman prior to Brown.

A group of 45 community organizations had requested the Governor to nominate new commissioners more attuned to the needs of consumers. See Public Interest Coalition Urges Transparency in Selection Process for PSC Commissioners, and blog posts at the New York Times and Newsday. In a press release announcing the nominations, Gov. Paterson cited Brown’s industry knowledge and lauded Acampora’s "commitment to consumer rights."

The nominations are subject to Senate confirmation. No date has been set for the Senate hearings.

PULP Winter Extra Guide to HEAP and Energy Assistance Online

As a reminder to advocates who serve low income energy consumers, PULP's annual "Winter Extra" for 2008 - 09 is available online. This detailed guide to the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) covers eligibility standards for Regular HEAP and Emergency HEAP. When the HEAP program is closed, or if a household is ineligible for HEAP and lacks resources to pay utility bills, financial assistance may be available under the emergency utility assistance program, which is covered in a chapter of the PULP Manual on the Social Services Law Section 131-s emergency utility assistance program.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

PSC Opens Another Con Edison Prudence Proceeding to Assess Rate Impact of Alleged Crimes

Recently federal prosecutors announced the arrest of 13 Con Edison employees accused of bribes and kickbacks in connection with Con Edison projects ultimately paid for by customers. Today the PSC issued an order commencing a prudence proceeding to investigate the matter, stating:
The conduct described by the ICE agents’ affidavits, unless disproved, has resulted in unwarranted payments by the Company to contractors to the detriment of the Company’s customers. Such unwarranted expenditures would have been included in the costs of the Company’s capital projects, as well as in its operation and maintenance expenses. Because such expenditures are an integral part of the Company’s rate case filings, such costs would have been, and continue to be, collected in end user electric, gas or steam rates. To the extent that Con Edison’s rates included charges for payments to contractors that were illegal and unwarranted, they would by definition be unjust and unreasonable.

Moreover, the Company’s conduct in connection with these contracts could be deemed imprudent. * * * * The affidavits made public by the US Attorney's investigation raise a concern that there may be deficiencies in the Company's oversight of its construction and bidding processes. While these affidavits justify the prudence case with respect to the indictment capital project contracts which we are beginning today, the affidavits also raise the possibility that the scope of our prudence inquiry should extend to other contracts or projects not identified in the affidavits filed thus far in connection with the US Attorney's investigation. In particular, we note that the 13 Con Edison employees asserted to have engaged in illegal bribe taking and kickback conduct were in managerial and oversight positions for large portions of the Company's service territory. Moreover, there is some evidence in these affidavits that the scope of misconduct may have included bid rigging or other behaviors inimical to the best interests of Con Edison, its customers and other contractors. These facts raise serious questions as to whether Con Edison's internal controls were inadequate or were inadequately enforced to protect the Company from excessive payments and illegal conduct by its employees. Accordingly, this proceeding will include an investigation of the Company's internal controls and the consideration of appropriate remedies, including consideration of whether the scope of the prudence inquiry should be expanded to include capital or operation and maintenance project contracts or expenditures other than those addressed in the US Attorney's allegations.
It is heartening to see that the PSC is also looking at the conduct alleged in the federal criminal investigation and at Con Edison's "system of internal controls." While no system of either Con Edison or the PSC can be expected to thwart all concerted criminal behavior, we note that for many years - including the years during which the alleged fraud occurred - the Commission did not perform the statutorily required management audits the Legislature mandated the PSC to conduct every five years. As stated in a 2007 recommended decision of administrative law judges in 2007:
PSL 66(19) states that management and operations audits “shall be performed at least once every five years” and shall include "an investigation of the company’s construction program planning in relation to the needs of its customers for reliable service and an evaluation of the efficiency of the company’s operations. The commission shall have discretion to have such audits performed by its staff, or by independent auditors." In every"[major rate case] the commission shall review that corporation’s compliance with … the most recently completed management and operations audit." CPB asserts that the Commission has not performed the management and operation audits required by PSL 66(19) in over fifteen years. CPB’s claim was not rebutted by either Staff or the Company.
A statutory management and operations audit process was begun in 2008, to be performed by an outside auditor, is now underway. The first such report in what will now be more than 17 years is due later in 2009.

Submetering Slowed at Roosevelt Island

Temporary Stay of Submetering Conversion at Roosevelt Island and Three Other Locations
As reported in the New York Times on Monday, a PSC-approved electric submetering project on Roosevelt Island ("Roosevelt Landings," an apartment complex formerly known as Eastwood) threatens to harm many low income tenants. Some Tenants Face an Unfamiliar Squeeze on Their Pocketbooks: An Electric Bill. The landlord's application to resell electricity from Con Edison and to become the monopoly provider of electricity to tenants was approved by the PSC in a November 12, 2008 Order.

As a result, responsibility for paying the bills for expensive, inefficient electric heating fixtures in poorly insulated apartments is being shifted from the landlord to the tenants while giving small rent reductions far exceeded by the anticipated cost of electricity. See Are Eastwood/Roosevelt Landings Enormous Submetered Electricity Bills Fault of Careless Tenants Or Inefficient Urban America Heating Equipment?

For a magnificent photo of some of the affected tenants, many of whom cannot afford the higher charges, click here.

On February 12 2009 the Chairman of the PSC, whose nomination for a six-year term is awaiting State Senate confirmation, issued a one-commissioner Order Staying Permission to Submeter, granting a motion for rehearing and supplemental request made on behalf of tenants by State Assemblyman Micah Kellner and other federal and city elected officials, temporarily staying implementation of the submetering order previously issued by the five-member commission, stating:
pursuant to this stay, the Owner shall not utilize the submetering system to measure electric service and shall not charge tenants for submetered electricity unless and until authorized to do so by a further Commission order. The Commission will expeditiously review the petition for rehearing and interested parties should file comments thereon.
Similar orders were issued simultaneously involving three buildings at other locations. The orders require the owners to provide to each tenant a copy of the PSC order, and to file proof that has been done with the PSC by February 27, 2009. It is anticipated that notice of the rehearing will be published soon in the State Register and that there will be a normal 45 day public comment period after publication of the notice.

Rationale for the Stay
The one-commissioner order suggests that the Commission may have been unaware, when it issued an order waiving its regulations against submetering in November 2008 that
  • heating bills are being shifted to tenants
  • the tenants have low incomes
  • the charges for electricity are not offset by commensurate reductions in rent
  • the premises and fixtures are not energy efficient
  • charges for electricity are deemed to be "additional rent," subjecting tenants to eviction for nonpayment of electricity charges
  • the landlord's grievance procedure may subtly evade the requirements of the Home Energy Fair Practices Act (HEFPA) by channeling disputes over electricity charges to eviction proceedings instead of to the PSC for decision.
Dodging HEFPA
Through assistance programs and exercise of HEFPA rights, such as the right to a deferred payment plan if one falls behind and is threatened with termination of service, most customers behind in payments to their utility can avoid termination of service. But by approving landlord submetering applications that say electric service will not be terminated for nonpayment - seemingly benign - the PSC actually prevents needy tenants who simply lack the means to pay their electric bills from getting affordable repayment plans whose terms can be reviewed by the PSC, and prevents those who lack the means to pay utility bills from receiving any assistance under Social Services Law 131-s and the Emergency HEAP programs, programs designed to stop termination of service.

The PSC submetering regime allows landlords to avoid many HEFPA requirements that spring from termination notices, for example,
  • requirements under Section 37 of the Public Service Law (PSL) to offer a negotiated payment plan to a customer in arrears,
  • notice protections to vulnerable elderly and disabled customers under PSL 32,
  • medical emergency protections under PSL 32,
  • third party notification to relatives or others under PSL 40 to protect customers who may not be literate or who may lack capacity to understand there is a problem regarding payment, and
  • the critical opportunity for a customer under PSL 43.2 to resolve disputes over bills and deferred payment agreements administratively at the PSL 32, before adverse action is taken by the utility provider. The PSC procedures are available by telephone, internet, or letter, or appearance, without the need for a lawyer. The process is far more customer friendly than landlord tenant eviction proceedings, which require court appearances and can culminate and a court eviction order that gives only five days for all arrears to be paid.
As we have previously pointed out, the NYSERDA manual on submetering (written by a landlord's consultant) instructs landlords to avoid the botheration of "burdensome" requirements of HEFPA that protect vulnerable customers. NYSERDA's publication instead suggests that the landlords simply evict tenants behind in payment of electric bills rather than offer deferred payment plans and providing other protections triggered by HEFPA. See PSC Authorizes Millions for Submetering Projects Violating Residential Tenants' Rights.

Over the past decade the PSC attempted to avoid its statutory duty under PSL 43.2 to decide customer complaints regarding the new utility service providers it promotes, such as ESCOs and submeterers. The avoidance of HEFPA complaint handling procedures by submeterers may involve subtle cooperation and unwritten practices at the PSC. We surmise that the following practices may exist:
  • Although the PSC submetering orders routinely acknowledge that HEFPA applies, the orders also include or approve external grievance procedures and lease provisions that route tenant complaints over electric charges to the landlord tenant courts or arbitration, via PSC-approved lease provisions which "deem" the electric charges to be "rent."
  • The PSC Office of Consumer Services generally does not accept a complaint if the customer has not first pursued his grievance with the utility, and so bill disputes and nonpayment issues involving submetered customer are steered back to the landlord - and thus to the court process contained in the landlord's grievance procedures. (We are aware of no reported PSC consumer complaint determinations involving submeterers, also suggesting that tenant complainants are being told by the PSC to pursue the landlord's grievance procedure which shunts the tenant complaints to court or arbitration, an option which itself may chill a tenant's interest in complaining).
  • If the customer complains to the PSC during the landlord's grievance process, the PSC Office of Consumer Services may refuse to hear a complaint that is or was the subject of a court proceeding or arbitration. (This has occurred, for example, a customer seeks the assistance of the PSC hotline to work out a payment plan, or alleges a HEFPA violation, or medical emergency, after the landlord has commenced a replevin proceeding in court).
  • Notices to tenants approved by the PSC and required to be put into lease language only vaguely mention that tenants may contact the PSC. The actual language used in the leases and tenant education materials fails to inform tenants of their right to have a dispute over charges or a payment plan adjudicated by the PSC under PSL 43.2 and the Commission's complaint handling regulations in 16 NYCRR Part 12. As a result, tenants may be unaware of any opportunity to initiate a complaint with the PSC that will be decided by the regulatory agency. When the other option is court proceedings, the complaints may simply be stifled.
In the past when challenged on a similar submetering order, the Commission backtracked slightly, but asserted that it had no jurisdiction regarding lease provisions deeming electric charges to be additional rent. See the PSC 2005 order in the Ebbets Field case where the Commission stated:
As to the concern that if a tenant does not pay his or her electric bill, the landlord would have the same recourse against the tenant as if the rent were not paid, we do not regulate the provisions in lease agreements between landlords and residential tenants. HEFPA would, however, apply and before the Owner could disconnect the tenant, it would have to adhere to the procedures required by HEFPA
Deeming Electric Charges to be Rent
The Roosevelt Island landlord's application to waive the general prohibition against residential submetering plainly states at page 6 that the electric charges shall be "deemed added rent." Prior PSC orders expressly allowed submetering landlords to evict tenants over unpaid rent, in lieu of termination of service, the statutory process governed by HEFPA and ostensibly by the PSC. For example, the PSC stated in a prior order allowing submetering in a Brooklyn apartment building:
The applicant certifies that the building manager will not terminate electric service to tenants for non-payment of electric charges. * * * * Failure to pay electricity will be treated the same as failure to pay rent and the landlord will have the same rights as if the rent was not paid.
Indeed, in the last year the PSC issued at least 13 submetering orders (including the four stayed yesterday) in which it approved deeming of electric charges to be added rent. This, coupled with saying service will not be terminated for nonpayment, is an essential element of the displacement strategy recommended in NYSERDA's manual.

Of course, when the landlord eschews termination of service many HEFPA protections are inapplicable and public assistance and emergency HEAP are unavailable to low-income tenants. If the PSC allows deeming of electric charges to be rent, (as the landlord applications and PSC orders typically provide), then the pathway to displacement of low-income tenants is cleared.
Legislative action to prohibit landlords from deeming charges for utility service to be rent may be needed. In their roles as a monopoly utility, landlords should not be able to use a remedy for nonpayment that is not available to utilities under the public service law.

Little or no effective regulation is being exercised by the PSC once a landlord is granted permission to sell electricity to tenants. PULP pointed to HEFPA circumvention problems in other submetering complaint cases still pending at the Commission without resolution for many months, where the landlord retained the law firm of a former PSC Chairman. See Lax PSC Enforcement of Submetering Orders Allows Landlords to Overcharge for Electricity Sold to Tenants and to Circumvent HEFPA Protections. Also, the PSC in November 2008 started a generic proceeding to "streamline" approvals for landlord submetering which, if adopted, may drop utility tariff prohibitions on submetering and delegate submetering applications for routine approval by its staff, without published commission orders for each conversion. See PSC to Hold Technical Conference on Electricity Submetering Issues; Submetering Technical Conference Postponed to January.

The submetering regime created by the PSC typically involves alteration of tenant leases seemingly to bar access of the tenants to regulated electric service from the traditional utillity or from alternative suppliers. There are fundamental policy and legal issues involved in allowing landlords to become the monopoly provider of electricity to their captive tenants. Longstanding statutes forbade landlords from requiring tenants to purchase commodities (fuel, ice) that are available elsewhere only from the landlord's designated supplier. Also, it is unclear whether sections of the Public Service Law (other than HEFPA) that apply to electric companies affect submeterers. Under the statutes, the only exception allowing a landlord to sell electricity to its tenants is when the landlord is a railroad.

For more information see PULP's website page on submetering.

Feb 13, 2009 -- NY Public Service Commission Grants Emergency Stay of Urban America's Eastwood/Roosevelt Landing Central as Electricity Submetering Charge Increases, Roosevelt Islander

Submetering Stay for 4 Electrically-Heated Buildings (not ours), Central Park Gardens Tenants' Association.

Feb. 15, 2009 -- State Freezes Plan to Have Tenants Pay Electric Bills, NY Times.

Feb. 23, 2009 -- PULP Files Comments on PSC Proposal to Relax Submetering Rules, PULP Network.

Unemployment, Utility Terminations Rising

Currently, more than 420,000 New Yorkers are receiving unemployment benefits, up from 175,000 a year ago, which represents a 140 percent increase. New State unemployment claims more than doubled to an average of 25,000 per week in January and February 2009, compared to an average of 12,000 to 13,000 during the previous two years. See Governor Paterson, Majority Leader Smith, Speaker Silver, Minority Leader Skelos, and Minority Leader Tedisco Announce Agreement to Address Dramatic Surge in Unemployment Insurance Benefit Claims. Additional data from the state labor department reveal an increasingly bleak situation.

When workers become unemployed they typically suffer a significant reduction in household income because the benefit levels do not come close to replacing their lost income. According to The Times, "[t]he maximum weekly unemployment check of $405 in New York is lower than in neighboring states like New Jersey ($584), Connecticut ($576) and Massachusetts ($628)." New York Allots Another $2 Billion for Unemployment Benefits.

For those who were barely getting by before they lost their jobs, and who lack savings, loss of a job can quickly cause them to fall behind in paying their bills -- including bills for essential utility service.

Increasingly, utilities are cutting off service to their customers in order to collect their bills, and in some instances take customers to court to get orders for entry into customer premises to remove meters or seal lines off. See In Court With Con Ed, a Glimpse of Life During a Downturn. In 2007 about a quarter million New York customers lost their electric or gas service when they did not pay the utility. See NARUC Collections Report. The 2008 statistics are likely to show a 20% increase in service interruptions for collection purposes.

The state's official policy, stated in the public service law, section 30, is that continuous electric and natural gas service is necessary for health, general welfare, and is in the public interest. This sound public policy is obviously being compromised. See Candle Fires: A Symptom of "Rolling Blackouts" Affecting Low-Income Households.

There are many protections to prevent termination of electric and gas service in the Home Energy Fair Practices Act, including the opportunity to get through economic tough times by paying arrears over time under a deferred payment agreement, along with payments for current service. For those who cannot afford that, there are programs of emergency utility assistance and HEAP that may help defray energy costs for those who cannot afford to pay their current bills.

PULP Utility Law Manual Update

PULP's purposes include education of the public about the legal rights of utility consumers, and to establish a resource center on the legal rights of consumers. Over the years PULP has published a desk reference manual for local legal assistance lawyers and other advocates which covers in considerable detail common legal issues faced by utility customers, and particularly low-income utility and energy customers. In addition to covering the Home Energy Fair Practices Act and telephone consumer protections, the manual topics include assistance programs for utility and energy consumers, utility Lifeline and low-income rates and programs, PSC complaint procedures, rights of water consumers, rights of submetered tenants, and more.

The task of updating the 1995 PULP utility law manual became a casualty of severe state funding reductions, complete elimination of federal Legal Service Corporation grants for all statewide legal aid support programs like PULP, and the consequent retrenchment.

With the support of a recent grant from the New York State Bar Foundation, PULP will complete the updating of its utility law manual for utility consumer advocates. In the coming weeks and months we hope to announce new chapter revisions.

Due to funding limitations, updates to the manual will be issued gradually as chapters are completed, and the manual will not be distributed in hard copy. Look for updates the PULP website online Help Center in the Law Manual section.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

When Is Lifeline Not Lifeline?

PULP recently learned from a New York City client that he lost his Lifeline low-income discount telephone service when he moved from one apartment to another even though his local phone company and telephone number did not change. This just didn't seem right.

Upon further discussion, we learned that his “Lifeline” service was provided by a competitive local telephone provider who had never been authorized by the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) to provide Lifeline assistance to its low-income New York customers. Rather, the company was giving the customer a $9 monthly discount off of its regular rates. While this may sound like a generous savings, low income customers of this provider actually end up paying far more than they should.

Lifeline discount telephone service has a specific definition both at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the PSC and it involves much more than a perceived savings to low income customers. In order to offer Lifeline, a carrier must first receive what is known as “Eligible Telecommunications Carrier” status, which makes the company eligible to be compensated for a large portion of the Lifeline rate reduction out of the federal Universal Service Fund (USF) and the state’s Targeted Accessibility Fund (TAF). The federal USF is paid for by most telephone customers around the country who contribute to the fund through a surcharge on their monthly phone bill. The state TAF is a mandatory contribution made by certified local exchange carriers in the state and is based on a percentage of their intrastate revenues.

When a carrier seeks ETC status, it must certify to provide a whole host of services in exchange for being able to seek recompense from these funds. These services are:
a) Voice grade access to the public switched network;
b) Local usage;
c) Dual tone multi-frequency signaling or its functional equivalent;
d) Single party service or its functional equivalent;
e) Access to emergency services, including access to 911 or E911;
f) Access to operator services;
g) Access to inter-exchange service;
h) Access to directory assistance; and
i) Lifeline and Link-Up programs, including free toll limitation services for qualifying low-income customers.

The ETC designate must also advertise the availability of these services in media of general distribution.

Generally, the only items on this list that tend to be a challenge for some carriers are the requirements for offering access to operator services and to be able to provide toll blocking services to Lifeline customers who request it. To date, all 40 of the incumbent local telephone companies around the state have received ETC status as well as 11 competitive providers. Two wireless providers, Sprint PCS and TracFone, which wanted to offer Lifeline in New York were granted ETC status from the FCC, and they provide the federally supported Lifeline discount. Because the New York PSC has not exercised jurisdiction over terms and conditions of wireless service, wireless Lifeline carriers only receive the federal discount, and do not receive the state discount.

The carrier in question, we learned upon our inquiry, does not have ETC status.
The New York Commission was partially responsive to a complaint filed by our client to be reimbursed for overcharges (the differences between the carrier’s regular rate and the discounted rate he should have been charged under the carrier’s so-called “Lifeline” tariff), but did not resolve other, larger issues.

In addition to receiving lower rates for local service, true Lifeline customers pay a fraction of the normal installation charges (under the Link-Up program) and are exempt from all of the taxes and surcharges attached to the phone company’s charges (other than state sales tax). These taxes and surcharges, including the subscriber line charge, excise taxes, and gross receipts taxes, can add almost $15 to a typical phone bill. Accordingly, while the provider in question was giving a $9 discount (and presumably is not being reimbursed for the shortfall because it is not an ETC), customers lose out because they must still pay these taxes and surcharges. The customer was not notified about this.

PULP is all in favor of Lifeline service and the more companies that offer it, the better it is for the state’s low income customers and their ability to make choices of service from different providers and in different service packages. However, what this company was doing can be seen as deceptive and confusing to the public. We believe that this company should seek ETC status and offer a true Lifeline product or, alternatively, change the name of its offering to something other than Lifeline, such as “low income discount rate.” The Department of Public Service is currently looking into these concerns.

Lou Manuta

Friday, February 06, 2009

NRC Holding Hearings on Application for New Nuclear Power Plant in Upstate New York

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is holding hearings on February 25, 2009 on environmental issues related to an application to build a new nuclear reactor at Nine Mile Point in upstate New York, near Oswego. See Hearings Set on Plan for Fourth Nuclear Reactor at Nine Mile Point in Scriba.

A September 2008 press release from Unistar Nuclear Energy, an affiliate in a complicated holding company and partnership arrangement with Constellation and EDF, indicates it will build "a 1,600-megawatt nuclear plant that can generate electricity for more than one million households."

The Unistar application, environmental report and other information about the plan is available at the NRC web page for the Nine Mile application. The NRC site indicates the reactor will be an an AREVA U.S. Evolutionary Power Reactor. The NRC site indicates that the U.S. EPR "is an evolutionary pressurized-water reactor (PWR), designed by AREVA Nuclear Power. It is a four-loop plant with a rated thermal output of 4,500 MWt."

Thursday, February 05, 2009

No Emergency HEAP for Fuel Customers with Automatic Delivery

With high fuel prices and more workers unemployed, many households requested HEAP assistance for the first time this winter, leading to some confusion, chaos, and frustration.
Certainly the way New York State’s HEAP program operates is not for the faint of heart. Some of the eligibility requirements are Byzantine, depending, for example, whether there is an emergency and the type of fuel used to heat the home.

Unlike other assistance programs, many of the detailed eligibility guidelines are not spelled out in state statutes or officially published OTDA regulations. Instead they are contained in an annual State HEAP Plan devised by OTDA and submitted by the Governor for federal approval, (which is sometimes changed midstream in the program year without significant public input), in vendor agreements between fuel and utility suppliers and welfare officials, and in subregulatory guidelines.

Even before this winter’s State HEAP program re-opened in November, PULP began to receive a constant stream of inquiries, asking everything from routine questions (“Where do I apply and what do I need to bring?) to the more complex (“My regular heating fuel vendor has gone out of business and the only other local distributor hasn’t received its HEAP certification yet, what should I do?”), to the inexplicable (I applied two months ago for Regular HEAP and didn’t get a decision from Albany County, now we are facing an emergency, do I need to reapply?).

A recent question that arose in the past few days deserves attention – what happens if a household is otherwise eligible for an Emergency HEAP payment, but the family is an automatic delivery customer of a heating fuel distributor - for example, propane or fuel oil - but has no money to pay for the next delivery?

An automatic delivery customer is one who has a contract with a heating fuel distributor to receive a fuel delivery whenever the distributor determines that a delivery is needed. No separate request or authorization is necessary for each delivery. This is a highly convenient method of delivery for many families because the fuel dealer usually has the usage history and weather data in his computer to calculate when the tank is low and when another delivery is needed. Some dealer contracts require customers to have automatic delivery in connection with fixed price or various price cap plans.

A downside is that households on automatic delivery are being denied Emergency HEAP benefits. Apparently, in the eyes of OTDA there can be no “home energy crisis” and no "emergency" if the customer is able to obtain another delivery, even if he has no money to pay for it. (Note that this limitation is inapplicable to “Regular HEAP” payments, for which eligibility is based on income without a “crisis” requirement).

However, what happens when either or both spouses of a family get laid off and bills start to pile up? Can the fuel distributor suspend or terminate the automatic delivery account if a prior balance has not been paid, and convert the account into a will-call or cash account? The answer is yes. This may also cause the customer to be liable for substantial early contract termination charges, if he signed a fixed price or price cap contract.

State regulations require that during the winter heating season (November 1st through April 15th), this fuel delivery cut-off and conversion from automatic delivery to a cash sale basis can only occur with proper notice to the customer. The distributor must provide written notice to the customer no less than three calendar days prior to the date of suspension or termination. The notice must inform the customer of the reasons behind the change and that assistance may be available through the local social services office. Contact information for the social services office must be included. The distributor must also make at least three attempts to notify the customer of the service cut-off by telephone. If the distributor can not reach the customer by phone, it must notify the social services office and, if there is one, a third party designated by the customer to be notified of such changes. Even when the heating fuel distributor reaches the customer, it must still notify the local social services office regarding the service termination if the distributor believes “a severe or hazardous health situation” will result.

It is hard to imagine how terminating fuel delivery during the winter months would not result in “a severe or hazardous health situation” in many situations. In addition, a “designated emergency agency” must be contacted by the fuel vendor when two attempts to reach the social services office fail. Once contacted, the social services office must investigate the situation and “take whatever actions are appropriate and necessary” in order “to provide any financial assistance for which customers may be eligible, and to provide or arrange for the provision of such other forms of assistance or social services as may be available.” Additionally, the emergency agencies must act immediately “to prevent loss of life or serious danger to public health.”

It would seem that the utilities did a better job in shaping the OTDA HEAP plan than the oil and propane dealers. Utility customers who heat with natural gas or electricity receive notices of termination 15 days in advance, and that is sufficient to qualify them, if otherwise eligible, for an Emergency HEAP payment, even when utilities are forbearing from cold weather terminations.

In contrast, families using non-utility fuel to heat their homes who are on automatic delivery may have only three days notice that a tank will not be refilled. In some situations, if the tank is dry or nearly dry when the notice is given, that may not leave enough time for the family to apply for and receive an Emergency HEAP payment before the house goes cold, particularly in rural areas where the HEAP office is far away.

Households facing inevitable financial troubles may want to cancel their automatic fuel delivery arrangement in order to expedite their eligibility for an Emergency HEAP grant when the tank reaches the 1/4 level and they have no resources to pay for the next fill. As indicated above, however, this may cause them to incur further debt for early contract termination charges.
This may be a serious "Catch-22" for many customers who are locked into high fuel oil or propane contracts they signed last year when prices were spiking.

Lou Manuta

DTV Transition Delay Approved by Congress, Obama’s Signature Is Expected

On February 4th, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to delay the nation’s transition to digital television until June 12, 2009. The House joins the Senate, which already passed the bill, in pushing back the original transition date from February 17th. Based on his public statements on the matter, President Obama is expected to sign the measure. See Obama Team, Citing `Major Problems for Consumers', Calls for Delay in DTV Transition.

The vast majority of the television stations around the country are probably ready to shut down their analog signals and go exclusively digital by mid- February, but problems and confusion on the customer end have plagued the transition.

Congress authorized each household to receive up to two $40 coupons to help defray the cost of a converter box (if the household with an existing analog TV set chose not to subscribe to cable or satellite service), but the coupon program has run out of money. Also, each coupon expires after 90 days and thousands of issued coupons have never been used. These problems, combined with a significant portion of the population still confused over what they need to do to continue to watch television after the transition date, precipitated the delay. See Digital TV Converter Boxes: Order Your Coupons Today!

Reflecting these concerns, just last month, Congress passed a law to require broadcasters to keep transmitting a reminder to “go digital” on their analog signals for 30 days after the transition date. See Static! More Stumbles in DTV Transition May Leave Many New Yorkers Without Service.

The postponement will also cost each television station thousands of dollars each month to keep two signals going at once – analog and digital – for four months longer than anticipated.

Lou Manuta