The Star-Ledger

$30 Million State Fund To Help Needy Pay Utility Bills

The Star-Ledger — Friday, March 21, 2003

By TOM JOHNSON
Star-Ledger Staff

The state yesterday established a $30 million fund to help poor and low-income families pay their gas and electric bills, a program to be financed by a small surcharge on customers' bills.

Under the Universal Service Fund approved by the state Board of Public Utilities, eligible families would spend no more than 6 percent of their income on energy bills. More than 100,000 households with incomes at or below 175 percent of the federal poverty line are expected to qualify for the program.

"This administration is cognizant of the struggles facing low-income customers with high energy bills," BPU President Jeanne Fox said. "It will help a lot of people who need help."

The program will be funded by surcharges on gas and electric bills for all customers of about $3 per year.

The fund replaces a $15 million pilot program that gave consumers a one-time credit of $200 on their energy bills. The state was supposed to set up a permanent fund by February 2001, under a state law that broke up New Jersey's electric and gas monopolies.

"The previous administration never cared about getting this program started," Staci Berger of New Jersey Citizen Action said.

Some consumer groups criticized the fund as too small, but credited the BPU for finally getting around to establishing a permanent program.

Jim Dieterle, state director for the American Association of Retired Persons, called the program "excellent."

"Some really low-income persons are spending upwards of 20 percent of their income on utility bills or not paying them at all and having their service shut off," he said.

Under the program, households with incomes at or below 175 percent of the federal poverty line would be eligible. For a family of four, that would be $31,675. Credit to customers will be capped at $1,800.

The state is hoping to automatically enroll eligible households using data from the state Department of Human Services and Department of Health and Senior Services beginning in July.

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