Archive for category Administrative Advocacy

Consumer Advocates Offer Recommendations to PUCO Rules

Recently, Ohio residential consumer advocates were invited by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO to file comments of on the rules governing the connection, disconnection and reconnection of gas and electric service and Ohio’s low income assistance program the Percentage of Income Payment program Plus (PIPP Plus) as part of the PUCO’s five-year review. Collectively, the consumer advocates are the only voice for everyday residential consumers before the PUCO, who makes and enforces rules regarding: utility security deposits, appropriate proof of consumer creditworthiness, and the timing and manner of shut off notices. This case is the only place where advocates can make recommendations on behalf of low- income customers who depend on the PIPP Plus program to get and/or remain connected to their utility to have heat and lights. These rules affect over 7 million customers who get gas or electric utility service from one of the regulated utilities in Ohio such as Duke, First Energy, AEP, or Columbia Gas, to name a few.

Consumer advocates urged the adoption of rules or changes to the rules in order to protect customers and maintain service without undue harm to utilities. In addition, the advocates made recommendations to improve PIPP Plus, which makes electric and gas payments affordable for low income Ohioans. The PIPP Plus program was created almost 3 years ago when the “Plus” was added to the existing PIPP program to provide arrearage forgiveness to many residents who had built up significant utility debt. The consumer advocates made the following recommendations for the Credit and Connection rules:

  •  Reduce utilities’ use of Social Security numbers to reduce the risk of identity theft
  •    Make security deposit requirements reasonable and affordable
  •  Connect service within a reasonable time after a request for service has been made

Similarly, the advocates also offered suggestions when disconnection or reconnection of service is an issue:

  •   Forbid landlords from using utility shut-offs to force tenants to move
  •  Require reconnection soon after payment is received if service is disconnected for nonpayment
  •   Make tenants liable only for service for the times that they actually rent and occupy a unit
  •   Create uniform rules and allow online access to forms for  both residents with health emergencies and their healthcare providers to request temporary waivers of payment during health emergencies

 This is only a sample of suggestions made by the consumer advocates.  Click here and here to see all of the topics covered.  Use this link to see the current rules and the rule changes proposed by the Staff of the PUCO.

 As mentioned previously, consumer advocates also made numerous recommendations to improve the PIPP Plus program, such as:

  •  Maintain a hardship exemption to waive the $10 minimum payment for up to six months
  •  Allow customers the benefits of arrearage forgiveness if they fully or partially pay in advance
  •  Extend the time periods for customers cycling off PIPP Plus (for whatever reason) to provide payment schedules that are reasonable and affordable
  • Allow the transfer of delinquent accounts to a PIPP Plus account
  •  Provide a more expansive definition of “on-time payment.”

 Our positive recommendations will only improve the current rules, and we hope that the PUCO agrees and adopts many of these recommendations. The consumer advocates who jointly submitted comments include:  the Ohio Poverty Law Center (OPLC) as well as most of the legal aid programs in Ohio, the Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy (OPAE), the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC), the Citizens’ Coalition, the Coalition of Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO), the Ohio Association of Area Agencies on Aging (OAAA), the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies (OCAA), and the Ohio Association of Food Banks.

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PIPP Plus Program Has Eliminated Half Billion Dollars in Low Income Customers’ Utility Arrears in 2011

Good news for low-income Ohioans struggling to pay their utility bills:  major changes to Ohio’s Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP) program that went into effect in November 2010 have lowered costs for customers.

The new program, PIPP Plus, lowered combined gas and electric monthly PIPP payments from 15% of the PIPP customer’s income to 12% (6% gas and 6% electric).  Moreover, if customers make their full monthly payment on time, they accrue no new utility arrears (for the difference between the PIPP payment and the actual bill charge), and one twenty-fourth of their existing electric or natural gas that is erased.  If a customer makes 24 consecutive payments, in full and on time, the entire debt will be forgiven.  Income eligibility remained at or under 150% of the federal poverty level for a household.

The Office of Consumers’ Counsel (OCC) has analyzed data for 2011, the first full year of PIPP Plus.  The data is remarkably positive.  On average, more than 72% of the payments made by customers enrolled in PIPP Plus during 2011 were submitted in full and on time.  The utilities also reported that nearly $500 million in arrearage credits were awarded to PIPP Plus customers who were current with their payments.

The average monthly PIPP Plus payment was slightly under $54 in 2011.  This averages to approximately $647 paid throughout the year towards electric and natural gas bills.

The PIPP Plus changes did not materialize overnight.  Beginning in the late 1990s, legal aid advocates—including Noel Morgan (Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio), Ellis Jacobs (Advocates for Basic Legal Equality), Joe Meissner (Legal Aid Society of Cleveland), Mike Walters (Pro Seniors), and Mike Smalz and Joe Maskovyak (Ohio Poverty Law Center)—joined with OCC in pushing for lower monthly PIPP payments and a PIPP arrearage crediting program.  Advocates won a partial victory with the passage of the first electric restructuring bill—Senate Bill 3—which eliminated pre-2000 PIPP electric debt for many elderly and disabled electric customers.  Additional years of advocacy—converging with the desire of Ohio Department of Development staff to incentivize more consistent and timely monthly payments by PIPP customers (and fewer resulting service disconnections and reconnections)—culminated in the adoption of the PIPP Plus program rules in November 2010.

The PIPP Plus program has not eliminated all payment, disconnection and reconnection problems for low-income utility consumers in Ohio.  PIPP Plus customers still have a higher energy burden (percentage of utility payments relative to income) than middle- and upper-class households.  Moreover, the PUCO has taken steps to pressure utility companies, especially natural gas companies, to move more quickly to terminate service to customers who fall behind in their payments.  PIPP Plus customers who miss two consecutive monthly PIPP payments can be terminated from PIPP and have their service disconnected.  Nevertheless, the implementation of the PIPP Plus program—taken as a whole—was a huge victory for low-income utility advocates and should ultimately wipe out billions of dollars in low-income customer utility arrears.

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Ohio Legal Aid Attorneys Submit Comments on Payday Lending to Federal Agency

In response to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau‘s recent request for comments on payday lending, Ohio legal aid advocates, led by OPLC attorney Linda Cook, recently teamed up to write and submit comments on the state of payday lending in Ohio.

Ohio advocates’ comments focused on Ohio’s failure to prevent payday lending, despite bipartisan legislation and a successful ballot initiative that were designed to prevent the practices in Ohio.

According to the legal aid group:

“Despite legislation and ratification by Ohio citizens, payday lending remains alive and well in Ohio.  No lender holds a license under the Short Term Loan Act.  Lenders engaging in the business of short term, small dollar loans have instead sought licensing under other provisions of the Ohio Revised Code that were on the books prior to the now-repealed 1995 legislation that opened the door to payday lending in Ohio.”

The group’s comments cite a recent report by Policy Matters Ohio, which found that “payday loans are similar to, if not worse than, before the legislative changes from 2008, because lenders are not operating under the new law. Stores are still selling high-cost, short-term, two-week loans.”

The legal aid advocates explain in their comments that Ohio’s experience with trying, and failing, to eliminate payday lending illustrates “the pervasiveness of both storefront and internet payday lending, and the entry of conventional banking into the short term, small dollar loan market….”

Click here to read a PDF copy of the legal aid advocates’ comments on payday lending.

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