Utility Cost Uncertainties: Latinos Among The Most Affected


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By Lisa S. Lenkiewicz

News of steep increases in electricity rates for Connecticut consumers made headlines this week. Advocacy groups are grappling in the trenches to fight for fair rates and reliable service.
Connecticut residents pay some of the highest electric rates in the country. Many older residents live on fixed incomes and pay a higher proportion of their income on utilities, noted John Erlingheuser, AARP state advocacy director.
For Hispanics, utility expenditures as a percentage of total household expenditures exceed those of most other ethnic groups in the nation. (Black Americans rank first.) Expenditures were highest for consumers aged 65 and older. This is according to an AARP Public Policy Institute analysis of 2012 utility expenditures by older consumers provided to CTLatinoNews.
In the 2013 state legislative session, a controversial initiative that many believed would have resulted in higher electricity costs in the future, was defeated. Gov. Dannel Malloy’s plan was to raise funds for the state with a proposed “energy auction,” that would have sold the accounts of more than 800,000 customers, who receive their electricity through the “standard offer” from CL&P and United Illuminating (UI), to private energy companies.
But State Rep. Matthew Lesser, a Latino legislator serving on the Energy Committee, noted the vote was close. This proposal, he said, would have resulted in consumers having their electricity supplier switched without their consent. He warned it could come back for reconsideration in the next legislative session in February 2014.
“I am worried [the proposed auction] might disproportionately affect those whose primary language is other than English,” explained Lesser. Lesser, who voted against the plan, did say he is not aware of any specific movement to reintroduce the measure.
Meanwhile, AARP is asking the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) for more stringent marketing rules for electricity suppliers. “We want to ensure consumers are not switched to a different supplier without their consent. We also want to require that suppliers provide accurate, transparent information so consumers can shop for the best rates,” said Erlingheuser.
“Consumers often see price changes in their bills without notice or explanation,” added Nora Duncan, AARP state director.
In a recent Tele-Town Hall conference call with AARP members in Connecticut, consumers were instructed to carefully monitor their electric bills and to watch out for “teaser” and variable rates that can grow large. Consumers were also warned to be careful about locking in rates with companies offering savings on electric bills.
An informal poll of listeners on the conference call revealed 56 percent obtain their electricity through a competitive company and 46 percent use CL&P or UI.
PURA has opened a regulatory proceeding (known as a “docket”) to examine concerns in the deregulated electric market. AARP-Connecticut is an official petitioner in the proceeding on behalf of their members and all residents aged 50 plus, explained Jennifer Millea, AARP-Connecticut communications director.
Closing the Digital Divide
Duncan said AARP-Connecticut is also involved in efforts to improve consumer protections and to ensure the affordability and reliability of traditional and digital telephone service. The AARP, she said, is focused on the adoption of a cellphone user bill of rights to protect consumers.
According to an analysis of three Pew Research Center surveys, Latinos “own smartphones, go online from a mobile device and use social networking sites at similar, and sometimes higher, rates than do other groups of Americans.” (See www.pewresearch.org for the report, “Closing the Digital Divide: Latinos and Technology Adoption.”)  In 2012, 86 percent of Latinos said they owned a cellphone, up from 76 percent in 2009, it was reported in a story at www.voxxi.com.
Those willing to share stories or issues about their electric or telephone services may call AARP toll-free at 866-295-7279 or visit www.aarp.org/ct.
Photo: CREC.org