Good Idea + Bad Follow Through = TRUE Grant Program

A couple months ago I posted an article about how certain energy safety net rules are overlooked. At the end of the article I mentioned a new program known as the TRUE Grant program and stated it “hasn’t been overly successful in averting shutoffs for moderate income families.” The purpose of my writing here is to 1) shed some light on this still under-utilized program, 2) ask state policy makers what is being done to improve upon it, and 3) tell people where to go or who to call if they need help with their utility bills.

First a brief history. Due to the “Great Recession” a number of legislators felt a need to help struggling families with their utility bills. Legislation was introduced in the New Jersey Assembly in 2008. Senate bill S3064 was introduced in November, 2009. Both bodies passed the bill overwhelmingly in January, 2010 and it was signed by then Acting Governor Stephen Sweeney. The legislation provides $25 million for utility
assistance grants for qualified households. Technically, it became P.L. 2009, Chapter 207.

It was assumed that grants would commence on or about July 1, 2010 as indicated in the legislation. Instead, the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) voted in November, 2010 to put the program out for bid. The Board issued a Notice of Availability of Grants, advising nonprofits in the state how they might become the program administrator. The Board of Public Utilities finally awarded the $25 million grant to the Affordable Housing Alliance, an agency located in Eatontown and issued a February 10, 2011 news release.

The Star Ledger printed an article in their Sunday, February 5, 2012 newspaper titled
“NJ Offers First Year Of Heating Assistance For Moderate Income Families”. The program finally began March, 2011 according to Michele Torres, director of the Temporary Relief for Utility Expenses (TRUE) program. In a year’s time the program has only given out $4.5 million to approximately 5400 households. Over $20 million remains available “to middle-income families who normally pay utility bills but are in a tough spot”.

Initially, the Affordable Housing Alliance partnered with five agencies in the state but has since increased the number slightly to 12. The TRUE website lists the local intake agencies as:
1) Atlantic Human Resources, 609-404-4801 (Atlantic);
2) Bergen County Community Action Partnership, 201-968-0200 ext 7008 (Bergen);
3) Affordable Housing Alliance, 732-982-8710 (Burlington, Cape May, Monmouth, Passaic, Sussex, Warren);
4) Camden County Council on Economic Opportunity, 856-964-6887 (Camden, Gloucester);
5) Bethel Development Corp., 856-327-9092 (Cumberland, Salem);
6) La Casa de Don Pedro, 973-485-0795 or 0796, ext 4415 or 4409, opt 7 (Essex, Union);

7) P.A.C.O., 201-217-0583 (Hudson);
8) Mercer County Hispanic Association (MECHA), 609-587-8800 (Mercer, Hunterdon);
9) Puerto Rican Action Board (PRAB), 732-828-4541 (Middlesex);
10) Morris County Organization for Hispanic Affairs (MCOHA), 973-644-4884 (Morris);
11) Ocean, Inc., 732-244-9041 ext 10 or 11 (Ocean);
12) Catholic Charities, 908-333-2271 (Somerset).

To fulfill the mission within a reasonable period of time the BPU and Affordable Housing Alliance (AHA) must increase the number of local intake agencies. AHA must rethink why many nonprofits are/were not interested in becoming a partner. Could it be due to unrealistic administrative reimbursement? Everyone involved in the TRUE program must do a better job at outreach. As one energy expert recently said to me, “The TRUE program is the best kept secret in New Jersey.” AHA must also revisit the unrealistic rules they have put in place. Would a legislator have sponsored the bill or voted for passage if he or she knew that households already shutoff would not be eligible for funds?

The statewide energy nonprofit, NJ SHARES was created so non-poor households had a place to turn to. AHA should follow their example.

Energy Safety Net Rules Overlooked

Nearly a month ago safety net rules went into effect which allow low-income families to maintain electric and gas service without fear of disconnection during the winter months. These rules are in place in most states and in New Jersey are known as the Winter Termination Program. Unfortunately, many of the families that are at-risk do not know the regulations, while companies that are supposed to follow the rules disregard them right and left.

You may have heard stories in which a low-income customer contacts their utility company only to be told they will be shut off soon unless they pay a large portion of their bill. This may be allowable under certain circumstances but may not comply with regulations issued by the state’s Board of Public Utilities. A situation came to this person’s attention and it was obvious the facts did not add up. For example, the customer was advised to pay three quarters of the outstanding balance. State rules allow a protected customer to pay up to 25% of the bill and go on a budget plan. The customer indicated she was receiving welfare. She was told that wasn’t enough, that she had to be receiving energy assistance (LIHEAP) to be protected against a winter shut off. She was further advised that service can be shut off as long as the temperature does not go below 32 degrees. Not true, as the weather does not supercede state regulations.

Last month the New Jersey Community Resources website featured an article as to which groups of people are protected against disconnections. To further assist social workers and community agencies in an effort to protect vulnerable individuals and families a series of questions have been prepared when they are interviewing their clients. It should be useful in averting unnecessary shutoffs and a source of information about other energy programs. The Utility Questions Guide is available on this site. Feel free to share it.

Other useful information is available on the following web pages:
Avoiding NJ Utility Shutoffs,
Winter Termination Program,
NJ Energy Assistance Programs.

Complaints about violations of the Winter Termination Program rules should be directed to the Board of Public Utilities at 800-624-0241.

In a related matter, we should also wonder what happened to the funding promised to families almost two years ago. Legislation was signed in Trenton in January, 2010 with funds becoming available starting July 1, 2010. It is known as the Temporary Relief for Utility Expenses (TRUE) program but hasn’t been overly successful in averting shutoffs for moderate income families.