Citizen Group Lobbies Public Utilities Board

CourierPostOnline — Sunday, August 20, 2006

New Jersey Citizen Action testified before Board of Public Utilities President Jeanne Fox and two other commissioners urging the board to expand benefits of the Universal Service Fund by raising the income eligibility threshold and by eliminating the maximum cap on benefits due to rising energy costs. NJCA's testimony was in response to the board staff's recommendations for the program, which the consumer advocacy group feels are the wrong direction to take for the assistance program.

The utility board staff's recommendations include establishing a limited application window, maintaining an $1,800 cap on benefits to participants and eliminating the Fresh Start program which forgives pre-program arrearages for USF participants if they are able to maintain payments of their current bills.

"If the BPU staff's recommendations are adopted by the board, it is almost certain that this very successful program will end up blocking eligible households who are in need of the benefits from participating, as well as gutting the benefits for those who do participate," said Atif Malik, an organizer for the advocacy group.

The program was started in 2003 with the intention of helping New Jersey's neediest households maintain affordable energy costs by aiming to limit eligible participant's bills to 6 percent of their annual income. The current eligibility requirements call for an applicant to have a utility bill in their own name, an annual income within 175 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, and an energy burden more than 6 percent of their annual income.

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