Like a medical researcher refusing to believe an intractable disease has no cure, Henry Shelton keeps looking for new ways to stop poor households from having their heat shut off in winter.
From street protests, to regulatory hearings, to State House lobbying, Shelton and his supporters relentlessly hunt for the legal and moral formula that will finally persuade taxpayers, business people, and government officials that no home should go cold during New England winters.
Two of the latest attempts are aimed at the state Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the state’s electric and natural gas utilities.
Shelton, who founded and runs the George Wiley Center, a Pawtucket-based anti-poverty group, has asked Governor Donald L. Carcieri to fill two vacant positions on the PUC, on the theory that added members might look kindlier on shutoff issues than he believes has been the case with the current three-member panel.
Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, a Democrat who met with the Wiley group recently, joined in this, and Lynch later wrote to the Republican governor, asking him to bring the commission to its full statutory strength of five members. As the AG wrote, “In these times of high energy prices, I believe an expanded membership of the PUC will help ensure that the voices and concerns of all Rhode Island ratepayers are heard, and hopefully protected.”
Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal says the current budget doesn’t provide for the positions, which are fulltime jobs commanding annual salaries topping $78,000.
Further, Neal said the governor isn’t convinced a five-member PUC can do any more than has the three-member panel in holding down utility rates.
Shelton counters that the PUC would benefit from having at least one commissioner who has experienced heating shutoff, and in general, should have more members in touch with ordinary consumers.
Meanwhile, the Wiley Center has petitioned the PUC to explore “clarification” of rules that forbid winter shutoffs in homes where someone is “seriously ill.” Shutoff rules now provide protection against shutoffs when someone has an illness “that is life-threatening or that will cause irreversible adverse consequences to human health or that has a significant potential to become life threatening or to cause irreversible adverse consequences to human health.”
Shelton says he suspects some physicians are reluctant to certify cases that don’t sound drastic. But he says many illnesses, such as childhood asthma, can become dangerous under the stress of constantly cold environments.
If the PUC does schedule consideration — which is likely, since they can be triggered by petitions of 25 signatures, and the Wiley Center says it submitted about 75 — Shelton hopes physicians and other health officials will testify about the direct and indirect problems of cold homes.
Gas and electric service is turned off at thousands of households each year when residents run up back bills that can amount to thousands of dollars.
The last General Assembly session passed, and Carcieri signed, a comprehensive new law to help some homes pay back bills and provide lower rates for poor households. But it won’t take full effect until next winter.