When James Boyajian scrutinized his electric bill this month he spotted something new. He was being charged an additional .8333 cents. Now Boyajian, retired Teamster Local 251 president and business agent, is seeing red and he is planning to mount a class action suit to stop the fee that amounts to $10 a year.
The added $10 a year on electric and natural gas bills is known as the Henry Shelton Act in honor of the former director of the George Wiley Center, who arduously fought to stop utility companies from shutting off low-income customers for lack of payment and for a state fund to assist with the utility bills of the needy.
It’s fine to help the needy, in Boyajian’s opinion, but he doesn’t think legislators should be reaching into his pocket or those of others to do it. If he wants to help the needy, he says he can do that.
“The legislature can’t say, ‘We want your money so we can help out someone else,’” he said. “Government is one thing and taxes to pay for government is one thing.”
Boyajian said he voiced his objection with Senator Michael McCaffrey and has talked with a lawyer about bringing suit. Boyajain believes the law and the fee designated as the LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) enhancement charge is illegal.
“It’s no wonder people are disgruntled with the legislature,” Boyajian said.
The fee that was implemented Jan. 1 is expected to generate between $6.5 million and $7.5 million annually, according to the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources. The money flows into a single LIHEAP enhancement account administered by the gas and electric distribution company to credit the accounts of customers assisted under the LIHEAP program.
While Boyajian questions the charge, Paul Salera, director of elderly and family services at Westbay Community Action, sees the need for the funding.
“This year we have seen a huge increase,” Salera said of those applying for the program.
He said, as of Wednesday, 3,071 Warwick, West Warwick, East Greenwich and Coventry households are enrolled in the program. Of the total, 1,551 receive heating oil assistance grants averaging $376. In addition, these people are eligible for an added 100 gallons of fuel if they have less than 1/8 tank. Funding for home heating oil payments come from federal LIHEAP grants to the state.
Even though federal LIHEAP funding has been cut, Salera said a carryover surplus from last year means the program is expected to sustain the same level of grants this year.
“Our cuts are not as dramatic as they could have been,” he said.
On the other hand, the funds from the Henry Shelton Act are earmarked for low-income homeowners and renters using electricity and natural gas for heating. Those grants range from $270 to $350 for natural gas and $320 to $400 for electric, based on the individual’s poverty level. The distribution company is directed to credit customer accounts using the enhancement plan charge.
Asked what is the difference between the $10-a-year utility charge and federal taxes that flow into the federally financed LIHEAP program, Boyajian agreed the charge is like a tax only it is being levied on utility customers. He accused legislators of “wanting to be a hero on your money.”
Michael Ryan, vice president of National Grid RI, said the company favored the legislation.
With this fund, Salera said, pressure is taken off federal funds and “we’re able to help more households.” Fortunately, he added, the winter has been warmer than usual. Nonetheless, he expects the number of households in the program for Westbay will eventually surpass last year’s 3,600.
Thus far, Westbay has distributed $617,000 in heating oil assistance; $364,000 for natural gas; and $51,000 for electricity.