Winter Termination Program Begins November 15

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities has announced the resumption of the Winter Termination Program which protects low and moderate income households from electric and gas termination, if they participate in certain energy programs. The program is in effect from November 15 through March 15.

The Board indicated in their press release that information is also available on various energy assistance programs.

The November 14 press release reads as follows:

Today, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (Board) highlights that November 15th is the beginning of its annual Winter Termination Program (WTP), which protects residential customers of the regulated electric and natural gas utilities in the state, who qualify and enroll in the program, from having their natural gas and/or electric service turned off during the upcoming winter season.

“No one should fear or suffer the consequences from having their heat turned off in the dead of winter,” said Richard S. Mroz, N.J. Board of Public Utilities President. “The regulated utility companies want to work with their customers to ensure that they and their families can stay safe and warm during the winter. Yet it is important to stress that customers should make every effort to pay what they can during the winter months since their past due account balances come due once the Winter Termination Program ends. All too often, we see customers who experience financial hardship when the moratorium ends due to large balances owed. And if customers don’t satisfy their obligation, the utilities can turn off service after March 15.”

The Board’s program runs from November 15, 2017 through March 15, 2018. All customers who are eligible for the WTP are required to enroll in a 12-month budget payment plan with their utility. The utilities are required to consider the customer’s ability to pay when setting up a payment plan. Customers are further required to make good faith payments toward their budget plan. Although service cannot be terminated during this winter moratorium, customers remain liable for the balance of their utility bills once the WTP ends on March 15.

Customers who receive benefits from any one of the following programs are eligible to enroll and be protected by the Winter Termination Program: Lifeline Credit; Federal Home Energy Assistance; Work First New Jersey-Temporary Assistance to Needy Families; Federal Supplemental Security Income; Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged and Disabled; Work First New Jersey/General Assistance
Benefits; and the Universal Service Fund. The program is also available to customers who fall into a “catch-all” category of people who are unable to pay their utility bills because of circumstances beyond their control, such as unemployment, death of wage earner or illness. In addition to the WTP, eligible customers can seek utility bill assistance help from several other programs. Information about these programs can be accessed on the Board’s website at: www.bpu.state.nj.us/bpu/assistance/programs/.

Related pages on the New Jersey Community Resources website include:
New Jersey Energy Assistance Programs, including income guidelines and a guide for Avoiding Utility Shutoffs in New Jersey.

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.

Winter Termination Program Takes Effect Today

The Winter Termination Program – sometimes known as the “winter moratorium” – began today, November 15. It is a regulation issued by the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) and prohibits utility companies from shutting off electric or gas service to certain low income customers.

The following is part of a Customer’s Bill or Rights found on the BPU website. It reads as follows: “Winter Termination Program – If you are an elderly or low income customer having financial problems paying your bill you should request the company to enroll you in a budget plan in accordance with your ability to pay. You are required to make good faith payments of all reasonable bills for service and in return are assured of the right to have gas and electric utilities service from November 15, to March 15 without fear of termination of such service.”

Customers who receive any of the following public benefit programs are protected against utility shutoffs: Lifeline, PAAD, LIHEAP, USF, TANF, GA, SSI, or persons unable to pay their bill due to circumstances beyond their control. A person can request to be placed under “WTP protection” if they are in any of these categories by contacting their utility company. To take advantage of the WTP a customer should make “good faith” payments, enroll in an affordable payment plan, and apply for energy assistance benefits.

Additional information is available on the New Jersey Community Resources website on the following web pages: Winter Termination Program, NJ Energy Assistance Programs, and Avoiding NJ Utility Shutoffs.

Households who require the intervention from others should contact the Board’s Division of Customer Assistance at 800-624-0241, or Legal Services of New Jersey at 888-LSNJ-LAW (888-576-5529).

Energy Tips: How To Navigate The System To Get Help

It seems this will be a hard winter. Unemployment still high, colder than average temperatures in the state, delayed energy funding etc etc etc. If you work in a social service agency and need to provide the public with helpful information then read the tips below. It may help your client navigate the system a little easier.

If you have applied for LIHEAP and/or USF via your local intake agency and your case is still pending, you can obtain quick information on the status of your case by calling the LIHEAP/USF Hotline at 800-510-3102. They are open from Monday through Saturday from 8am to 5pm. Yes, even Saturday. You do not have to call the agency that is processing your application to get up-to-date information. In fact, by calling the hotline you free up the local agency to process applications rather than answering phone inquires.

If you receive a Universal Service Fund (USF) credit but you move, you should call the utility company and tell them you want to have your USF transferred to your new address. They will then recalculate your energy usage and have the state make a determination as how much of a credit you may be eligible for at the new address. USF benefits won’t automatically follow you to your new address. As a USF customer you have to call them and ask to have your USF credit transferred. This feature of the USF is called Portability.

Case Name vs. Customer Name. Some customers when shutoff resort to having the service turned on in another person’s name – friend, family member, etc. However, doing so eliminates the likelihood of getting assistance from either welfare or through the Universal Service Fund program. If you have a bill problem seek help. Don’t compound the problem.

When you are talking to a customer service representative at a utility company, remember to write down the name of the person you spoke to. Often they will type notes into their computer system but not always. You should write down what was said and who you spoke to. The same holds true when calling a social service agency.

The Winter Termination Program (WTP) protects certain households against a utility shutoff during the winter. The Board of Public Utilities (BPU) – www.bpu.state.nj.us – advises the following, “Those enrolled in specific programs (such as SSI, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, USF and Lifeline) are protected by WTP, and an additional “catch-all” category is included for people unable to pay their utility bills because of circumstances beyond their control such as unemployment or illness.” This is found on the BPU website at www.bpu.state.nj.us/bpu/assistance/programs/. A full list of the protected categories under the WTP can be found at www.njcommunityresources.info/wtp.html.

It is the customer’s responsibility to let the utility company know they are WTP protected.

“Circumstances beyond their control” is a key phrase which could help thousands prevent a shutoff, if you know your rights as a utility customer or read the bill message insert when you get a shutoff notice. You can request protection under the WTP by calling the utility company or if that fails by calling the BPU Customer Assistance hotline at 800-624-0241.

A bill will be estimated if the utility is unable to get a true reading. If your bill has been estimated for more than one month it is in your best interest to read the meter and call it in or to arrange for meter reader access. Most utility company websites have information about how to read the meter. Look at your bill to know when the next reading will occur. It is difficult to make an arrangement on a back bill if it has been estimated for a number of months.

Bill assistance is not the only answer. Energy conservation will reduce consumption and lower your monthly bill. A few websites and programs to inquire about include:

Weatherization Assistance Program. A downloadable list is available at www.state.nj.us/dca/divisions/dhcr/forms/docs/wealist.doc or telephone 866-551-7165. It is available to households earning less than 200% of the Federal Poverty Index.

Comfort Partners. Visit www.njcleanenergy.com/residential/programs/comfort-partners/comfort-partners or telephone 888-773-8326.

Energy Savers Booklet published by the U.S. Department of Energy is available online at www.energysavers.gov/pdfs/energy_savers.pdf.

Many utility company websites – see www.njcommunityresources.info/nj.html#utilities – provide information if you search under ‘energy conservation’ or ‘weatherization’.