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NJ Working to Provide Affordable Utilities

(TRENTON) – Addressing the last in a series of six scheduled senior seminars, Governor James E. McGreevey today highlighted the administration’s efforts to make utilities more affordable for New Jersey consumers. 

The seminar --  entitled “Affordable Utilities” -- was co-hosted by the AARP and included New Jersey Board of Public Utilities President Jeanne M. Fox, Ratepayer Advocate Seema Singh, Verizon President Dennis Bone, AARP’s Chief Executive Officer Executive Director Bill Novelli and New Jersey State President Marilyn Askin. 

“Utilities warm our homes, tune us into the world and keep us connected to our family and friends,” McGreevey said.  “Unfortunately, the bills for these services continue to climb.  As such, we remain committed to ensuring that utilities are as affordable as possible, while at the same time ensuring that quality and customer service do not suffer.” 

The “Affordable Utilities” seminar highlighted the state’s new, permanent Universal Service Fund and its related affordable bill-payment program for electric and gas utility customers.  

Approved by the Board of Public Utilities last week, the USF is an energy assistance program for low and fixed-income ratepayers.  Seniors with a household income level at or below 175percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for the program.  The USF also guarantees that eligible customers pay no more than 6percent of their income on combined electric and gas bills, 3percent on only gas or electric, or 6percent on all electric heat.  

The BPU has provided initial funding of $30 million for the program and is committed to fully funding the USF beyond this allocation to ensure that everyone who is eligible will be part of the program. 

“This is the age of deregulation.  The industry is changing and we must change in order to do whatever is best for New Jersey ratepayers,” said BPU President Jeanne Fox.  “The programs outlined by the Governor today go beyond basic service - they address issues that are important to our senior population – affordability and reliability.  Governor McGreevey is committed to ensuring that utilities are as affordable as possible and that quality of customer service is maintained in this new competitive marketplace.” 

"Today's seminar represents one of the most comprehensive efforts directed at increasing awareness among New Jersey's senior residents about the various programs available to assist them with their utility bills,” added N.J. Ratepayer Advocate Seema Singh.  “We must ensure elderly and poor residents have the opportunity to obtain and maintain quality utility services at affordable rates.  It is important that we provide effective resources and heighten awareness of these programs at the individual resident and community level."    

Today’s seminar also included information about other utilities regulated by the BPU such as local telephone service and cable television.  

Over the past nine years, the BPU has recovered over $191 million for New Jersey cable subscribers in rate relief, including nearly $33 million in refunds.   Last year, the BPU approved basic rate credits of $165,000 to Comcast, RCN and Cablevision customers, and $15.4 million in basic rate reductions for Comcast and Cablevision subscribers. The BPU has also negotiated with 305 municipalities in New Jersey to offer a senior citizens discount for cable television, sometimes as high as 15 percent.   

The Telephone Lifeline is an assistance program, sponsored by the state and in conjunction with Verizon, provides low-income individuals with a monthly credit towards payment on telephone bills.  Last summer, the state announced an expansion of Lifeline eligibility to seniors with household incomes below 150 per cent of the federal poverty level. The expansions include an increase in the maximum benefit of nearly 40 percent to $13 per month and the addition of an automatic enrollment component to the program.   

These expansions, which will be implemented by the end of this month, require no additional state funds. A total of 50,000 people are currently enrolled in Lifeline.  Under the expanded program, 236,000 people will be eligible.  If all eligible customers enroll, the estimated savings could exceed $400 million through 2014. 

“The AARP appreciates the Governor’s strong commitment toward improving the quality of life for New Jersey’s older population,” said Jim Dieeterle, AARP New Jersey State Director.  “The Administration’s ongoing collaboration with AARP has resulted in bringing important issues to the forefront of the public’s attention.  AARP looks forward to continuing our work with Governor McGreevey in support of consumer protections.” 

“We thank Governor McGreevey for sharing our vision for positive social change,” said Marilyn Askin AARP New Jersey State President.  “While this marks the final Senior Issue Seminar with Governor McGreevey and AARP, it is just the beginning of our efforts to create positive social change--to make it better for all residents of New Jersey. 

“We have rallied over 6,000 older residents at the Capital in support of our issues: consumer protection, access to prescription drugs and today's topic affordable utilities,” Askin added.  “We came to Trenton, to advocate for good consumer legislation and to let our legislators know that we will hold them accountable for their actions in November.”  

Past seminars with the AARP have focused on the restoration of the Office of the Public Advocate, telemarketing, predatory lending, and access to prescription drugs and age discrimination.


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