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Published: Friday, 7/11/2008

PUCO weighs rules to help low-income homes keep utilities


Regulatory authorities in Ohio are considering new rules to make it easier for low-income customers to keep power and fuel flowing to their homes, even as experts predict record home energy prices this winter.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio is studying whether to modify rules that govern how utilities interact with those who can't pay their utility bills and those with low incomes.

The rules under review cover the Percentage of Income Payment Plan, which allows those with incomes below 150 percent of the federal poverty level to pay 10 percent of their monthly income to maintain utility service.

Any portion of the bill that isn't paid is placed into an arrearage account and remains an obligation of the utility customer.

The National Energy Assistance Directors Association is predicting a 14 percent increase nationally in the cost of heating a home with natural gas this winter, and an 18 percent increase for those who heat with propane.

Bills for those who heat with electricity are expected to rise 4 percent, and for those who heat with oil to increase 32 percent.

Under the PUCO's proposed rules, the income percentage would be reduced from 10 to 8 percent.

Those enrolled in the program also would be able to earn credits to reduce their arrearage account balance by continuously paying their bills on time or by consistently using less energy than in the previous year.

A PUCO spokesman said about 480,000 households are enrolled statewide in the program.

To qualify, a household with two people would have to have an income less than $21,000 a year; a family of four is capped at $31,800 in annual income.

The agency is accepting comments on the proposal through Aug. 11 and is considering a request from the Ohio Consumers' Counsel and other organizations to hold regional public hearings on the issue.

- Larry P. Vellequette

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