The holiday season is one of the busiest times of the year, with the weeks and days leading up to Christmas and New Year’s often spent shopping, cooking and preparing for celebrations with family and friends.
It can be easy to forget, amid this hustle and bustle, that for many of our neighbors the season is a time of struggle. In a still sluggish economy, many of our most vulnerable citizens face difficult choices during the winter months, forced to allocate fixed resources among a variety of critical needs.
The recent decision of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to delay a vote on proposed changes to the rules governing natural gas and electric service termination represents a recognition on the part of officials that helping to ensure the well-being of our communities’ low-income families, children, ill and elderly must always be a top priority. Its decision to hold additional public forums and discussion on the proposal additionally recognizes the need to ensure the process is inclusive and reflects the diversity of the affected communities.
The proposed alterations to the guidelines would condense an existing 55-page document down to eight pages. The changes would lower the income threshold for being classified as having a “financial hardship,” shorten the existing moratorium period on shut-offs and adjust the way people are designated with “protected status.”
Experts and advocates, understandably, pushed back against the proposal, arguing that the changes would have a detrimental effect on those for whom utility bills represent a significant burden during particularly difficult times.
“This is another form of violence toward those in poverty,” writes Gail Farris of West Kingston in a letter to the PUC. “This would not be an action of social or economic justice. It would be a mean-spirited action that has no place in a democratic society. Please do the right thing.”
Ahead of the vote to delay action, PUC Chairwoman Margaret Curran acknowledged in a positive manner those who spoke out against the changes. She said the objective of the proposal is not to drastically change existing regulations, but to streamline the process and “remove overlap between agencies that can work to the detriment of the people they’re trying to protect.”
“We failed to properly convey our information and educate the people on what we’re trying to do,” she said.
The PUC’s decision to hold off on a vote, and to open up the decision-making process, was the right one. With the spirit of the holiday season in mind, we hope that with additional consideration and input, the final decision reflects the best interest of all involved and continues our shared commitment to protect those who most need our help.