2003 Ratepayer Advocate Accomplishments
The Division of the Ratepayer Advocate sponsored a conference on November 14, 2003 on the theme “Get Energized: News Consumers Can Use to Reduce Energy Bills” of which Governor McGreevey’s greetings were given via video. More than 250 representatives from state and local governments, not for profit agencies, utility companies, alternate energy providers, and individual ratepayers attended this program which discussed the administration’s efforts to support conservation and energy aggregation, resulting in economies which will benefit all ratepayers. The administration’s support of Universal Service programs to ensure that heating is available to persons on limited incomes as well as retired persons was also discussed.
At the conference the Ratepayer Advocate released two new publications - a “Consumer Conservation Handbook” and a “Manual for New Jersey Government Energy Aggregators.” These two publications are described in more detail below.
The Ratepayer Advocate’s conference was a direct result of the Governor’s leadership in promoting energy conservation. In the two years that Governor James E. McGreevey has been in office, he has fulfilled one of his most important campaign promises – to change the way we do business in New Jersey by making government more efficient. Some examples are the Governor’s leadership in the development of renewable energy, clean energy, and energy efficiencies, signing legislation to make it easier to aggregate, and ensuring that there are sufficient energy assistance programs available to those in need.
Following the conference, the Ratepayer Advocate launched a comprehensive, statewide energy conservation and aggregation effort to help ratepayers lower their electric and natural gas utility bills in the face of rising energy costs. Right now, conservation and aggregation are the only realistic alternatives to rising energy costs for residential ratepayers and small business customers. The benefits of energy deregulation have not flowed to New Jersey’s residential and small commercial ratepayers. The Ratepayer Advocate will go to each county, municipality and legislative district where invited to meet ratepayers to advocate energy conservation and aggregation programs to help them deal with rising energy costs.
The Ratepayer Advocate renewed the offer at the League of Municipalities conference to visit municipalities to bring the Ratepayer Advocate’s conservation campaign to towns across the state. The campaign includes presentations showing ratepayers how to read their utility bills, as well as presentations on municipal aggregation – how local governments can band their citizens together to form power buying pools to leverage their numbers to purchase lower-cost energy.
The Division receives frequent requests from elected officials, not-for-profit
agencies and civic groups for presentations clarifying energy and telecommunications
rates and services. The Ratepayer Advocate, when possible, or the Deputy
Director and staff attorneys make presentations to groups ranging from
small meetings organized by elected officials, AARP or other not for profit
community groups to large groups at schools and City Halls. In addition
to Power Point presentations about how to read utility bills and other
complex utility issues prepared in plain language, special consumer-friendly
materials are also distributed to attendees including the Ratepayer Advocate’s
Consumer Assistance Handbook and Consumer Conservation Handbook.
Our presentation at the Monroe Township Democratic Club sparked further interest and we were invited to speak at an adult retirement community also located in Monroe Township this coming February.
The Ratepayer Advocate produced several books, each of which includes an introductory letter from the Governor, to provide consumers information about reducing their energy costs and making informed decisions about their electric, natural gas, telecommunication, cable TV and water/wastewater services.
“Consumer Conservation Handbook” is an easy-to-use, room-by-room guide of conservation tips to winterize and summerize the home. Specifically included are many money-saving conservation tips that are inexpensive to implement. In fact, many cost nothing at all. The more of these suggestions consumers adopt, the more they can save on their utility bill.
“Consumer Assistance Handbook, October 2003 Edition” is a consumer resource guide providing pertinent information on all utility services, including how to read your meter, your rights as a utility customer, and how to file a consumer complaint.
“Manual for New Jersey Government Aggregators pursuant to the Electric Discount and Energy Competition Act (EDECA) N.J.S.A. 48:3-49 et. seq.” describes the procedures under EDECA and the significant changes signed into law by Governor James E. McGreevey earlier this year that enable local governments to form power buying pools more easily. This is a “how to” publication geared towards local governments wanting to initiate energy aggregation for their constituents and public services as the most effective way for small users to benefit from the economies of scale.
JCP&L Performance Standards
Governor McGreevey quickly endorsed the proposal and the BPU is now in the process of reviewing implementation of performance standards and penalties. The Governor also appointed Patrick Downes as the special reliability master to investigate the occurrences that led to the July 4th power outage.
Utility rates are set to enable a utility to provide safe, proper and reliable service. JCP&L’s ratepayers are not getting the service they are paying for. Making shareholders shoulder responsibility for poor performance is the best way to ensure that JCP&L’s service improves.
The Ratepayer Advocate has been advocating that the risk be taken off the ratepayers and put on the shareholders for years. Under the Ratepayer Advocate’s Service Quality Program, the BPU would monitor customer service factors such as call center performance, customer complaints, timely installation of service, keeping field appointments and disconnection frequency. If JCP&L should fall below a certain service standard, the BPU could impose financial penalties upon the utility.
The Ratepayer Advocate is also recommending that JCP&L institute a Customer Service Guarantee for certain service quality failures. Under our proposed performance standards, the company would give any customer who experiences certain kinds of service failures a definite rebate or credit on their utility bill.
Customers deserve a minimum level of utility service. The standards proposed by the Ratepayer Advocate would ensure that customers receive the “safe, adequate and proper” utility service to which they are entitled.
Utility Donations for Dept. of Education “Schools of Excellence” Program
The Ratepayer Advocate has assisted the New Jersey Department of Education by obtaining financial contributions from various utility companies for the “Schools of Excellence” program. The three-year program will provide each year $25,000 to 25 schools.
Through the efforts of the Ratepayer Advocate, from June 2002 to the present, we have obtained more than $4 million from companies the State regulates.
To date we have obtained:
$500,000 from El Paso Merchant Energy
Wherever possible, the Ratepayer Advocate will seek additional funds to support the administration’s education efforts.
Universal Service Fund for Energy Consumers
With the assistance of the Ratepayer Advocate, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) established the permanent Universal Service Fund (USF) on April 30, 2003. The purpose of this fund is to help low-income electric and gas utility customers maintain access to affordable energy service, especially through the winter months.
In March 2001, the BPU implemented an interim USF that provided eligible customers with a one-time credit of $200 for help with the payment of energy utility bills, using the Federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (known as LIHEAP) criteria to determine credit eligibility. As urged by the Ratepayer Advocate, the new permanent program will also operate using the bill credit system, with a cap of $1800 assistance per year. The actual amount of USF credit received will be calculated based on a formula to establish the individual customer’s ability to pay.
Eligibility for permanent USF assistance will be determined through an automatic enrollment process using the rosters of those currently receiving assistance from New Jersey Lifeline and LIHEAP.
Open Space Initiatives
The Ratepayer Advocate was instrumental in advancing the Administration’s open space initiative by negotiating a land sale agreement, which was approved by the Board of Public Utilities (BPU), permitting United Water Lambertville, Inc. (UWL) to convey property to Delaware & Raritan Greenway, Inc. (D&R Greenway), a non-profit land trust in the State of New Jersey.
This agreement, which will provide each customer of United Water Lambertville with a $305 refund check, brings specific financial benefits to ratepayers and is clearly an example of the Ratepayer Advocate’s work to protect the environment.
Chief among the benefits for consumers is that this agreement advances the State’s Smart Growth policy by preserving the property as open space land use, further providing families of New Jersey with a clean and healthy environment.
D&R Greenway works closely with the New Jersey Department of Environment Protection’s Green Acres Program in acquiring properties for open space and passive recreation. The property outlined in the land sale agreement is uniquely situated to provide an east-west linkage in the greenbelt created between the Delaware River and the wooded Sourland Ridge. The land, preserved as Open Space can serve as a north-south linkage between the Sourland Ridge and preserved land in Mercer County between Howell Living History Farm, Baldpate Mountain Preserve and Washington Crossing State Park.
D&R Greenway agreed to purchase from UWL approximately 290 acres outright, and conservation and public access easements on another 108 or so acres, for a total price of $2,021,693.65. After paying certain expenses and taxes associated with the sale, the net gain to be split between the customers and UWL was $1,180,377.33. The customers’ share will be split among the approximately 1600 customers of UWL in Lambertville and West Amwell. The Company issued the rebate checks to its customers in August 2003.
Atlantic City Sewer Refund to Customers
The Ratepayer Advocate worked with the Atlantic City Sewerage Company (ACSC) to refund unexpended funds related to a portion of the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) Atlantic City/ Brigantine Connector project that affected property owned by ACSC. The company serves approximately 7,294 customers in Atlantic City.
This agreement, which will provide each customer of Atlantic City Sewerage Company with a $29.38 refund check, brings specific financial benefits to ratepayers and is clearly an example of the Ratepayer Advocate’s work to protect the interests of consumers when settling utility matters in New Jersey.
Customers will be credited with approximately 50 percent of the net proceeds from the return to the Company of funds set aside as part of the NJDOT acquisition of two portions of the Company’s Huron Avenue property in 1997.
The NJDOT project established a “State Reserve” fund in the event that environmental remediation was needed on the property. Part of the agreement between ACSC and NJDOT provided that any unexpended State Reserve funds would be returned to the Company.
Chief among the benefits for consumers is that this agreement advances the State’s need to spur economic growth in the Atlantic City Area by allowing the NJDOT to utilize utility property that was not used by the utility to provide service to its customers.
This agreement brings to a close a series of proceedings related to the Company’s Huron Avenue property. In 1999, the BPU approved an agreement among the Ratepayer Advocate, ACSC and the BPU Staff to approve the sale of the parcels for approximately $9 million. That proceeding resulted in a refund of 50% of the net proceeds of that land sale to ACSC customers. In that proceeding, customers received a refund of $380.22 each.
Lifeline Telephone Service for New Jersey Residents
Unfortunately, thousands of New Jersey residents, many of whom are senior citizens, simply cannot afford a phone, and thousands more have trouble paying their bills each month. Because of a new public-private partnership among the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU), Verizon New Jersey, and the Division of the Ratepayer Advocate, help is now available.
Home telephone service is necessary for maintaining a basic quality of life. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 97.3% of New Jersey households have telephone service. However, the 2.7 percent of New Jersey residents without phone service represent the most vulnerable members of our population, particularly senior citizens on low, fixed incomes.
To combat this little-known but important problem, the BPU, Verizon New Jersey and the Ratepayer Advocate have launched a consumer outreach and education campaign to enroll eligible residents in Communications Lifeline and Link Up America, which make available discounted local phone service to eligible, low-income New Jersey residents and seniors.
Communications Lifeline customers receive Touch-Tone service at no cost,
a choice of three different service options, plus opportunities to add
safety and privacy features such as caller ID and Call Block. Communications
Lifeline customers may have only one telephone line.
An automatic enrollment system was implemented for Communications Lifeline in April 2003 in an effort to reach every resident in need. Every three months, the system automatically signs up existing phone customers in Communications Lifeline when they participate in any one of eight specific public assistance programs, such as Food Stamps and Prescription Assistance to the Aged and Disabled.
To be eligible for automatic enrollment, customers must participate in at least one of the following public assistance programs: Food Stamps, General Assistance, Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families/Work First New Jersey, Lifeline Utility Credit/Tenants' Lifeline Assistance, Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged and Disabled, or the Home Energy Assistance Program. In addition, applicants cannot be claimed as dependents for federal income tax purposes unless they are over 60 years old. To enroll, customers should contact their county public assistance office.
Also, existing phone customers who are 65 years and older and whose income is at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty line can self-enroll. For individuals, the household's income cannot exceed $13,470, and a two-person household's income cannot exceed $18,180. To enroll, seniors must provide income documentation within 30 days of enrolling in Lifeline.
Communications Lifeline has provided a true lifeline to many residents for years, and this newly enhanced discounted phone service will make this essential service available to many more residents. We must all make it our priority to help those around us in need and help spread the word that every New Jersey resident can have access to affordable phone service.
Telephone Number Portability
The Ratepayer Advocate issued a Consumer Advisory to all of its media
contacts in December 2003, including a checklist, to help consumers take
precautionary measures as they decide whether "to port or not to
port." New Federal Communications Commission rules took effect November
24, 2003, that allow consumers to keep their existing cell phone numbers
when they switch carriers, ushering in the much awaited freedom of choice
and convenience of number portability.
Improving the Responsiveness to Ratepayers’ Requests for Assistance
To minimize delays in replies to ratepayers requesting assistance and to make the replies as specific and responsive as possible we have instituted the following procedures:
1. Responses to requests for assistance from ratepayers concerned with energy, telecommunications and water rates and services are immediately assigned to a staff attorney by the Deputy Director for the drafting of responses within 5 working days.
2. The draft is coordinated by one specific staff person, the Ratepayer Advocate’s Consumer Assistance Coordinator, who follows up with assigned attorneys to insure the drafting of the response in a timely and effective manner.
3. The Consumer Assistance Coordinator reviews the draft for substantive responsiveness and, as appropriate, will follow up with the Customer Service Division of the utilities involved or the BPU to expedite resolution of problems.
4. The Consumer Assistance Coordinator drafts the final response to the ratepayer and arranges for transmittal with all attachments as needed.
This process has resulted in a number of messages of appreciation from consumers and, of course, even more requests for assistance from their neighbors and colleagues with whom they shared our less bureaucratic, more responsive replies to their requests.
Ratepayer Advocate Website
The Ratepayer Advocate website www.rpa.state.nj.us has been refurbished and reorganized in keeping with OIT’s standards to make access for the public more comfortable and available. Ratepayers have access to all our media releases, informational materials and legal positions taken by the Ratepayer Advocate attorneys in representation of state ratepayers before state and federal courts and administrative agencies.
Cultural Diversity Initiative
As part of Governor James E. McGreevey’s statewide month-long celebration from September 15 through October 15th of Hispanic Heritage Month, Ratepayer Advocate Seema M. Singh invited Dr. Luis Martinez-Fernandez, Department Chair, Rutgers-New Brunswick, Department of Puerto Rican and Hispanic-Caribbean studies who gave a presentation on “Hispanic/Latinos in the 21st Century: Challenges We Face and Obstacles We Confront,” to the Division of Ratepayer Advocate’s office.
The Ratepayer Advocate initiated the first celebration of Diwali at a state office on Tuesday, October 21, 2003, with a presentation to the staff on “Hindu Worldviews” by Rajiv Malhotra, President of The Infinity Foundation.
Mr. Malhotra simplified the complex concepts of Ultimate Reality in Hindu Philosophy to an audience comprising of attorneys and administrators, by comparing the different deities and Gods in Hinduism, including Ganesh, Laxmi, Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma, to Cabinet Members or different Department Heads.
Tiamoya Terrell, a student at North Star Academy High School and a member of the Metropolitan Baptist Church Liturgical Dance Ministry performed during the event.
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