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OEB offers help to consumers

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Whether you’re a low-income resident struggling with electricity bills, or someone who’s had a bad run-in with an electricity retailer, the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) is here to help.

The OEB, in partnership with Northwest Community Legal Clinic, hosted an information session at the Super 8 here yesterday afternoon—providing a chance for the OEB to tell the public about everything it does to regulate the province’s electricity and natural gas sectors in the public interest.

An OEB initiative which just started this year is the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP), which aims to help low-income consumers pay their hydro bills.

Lenore Dougan, policy advisor (regulatory policy) for the OEB, said if you are having trouble paying your bill, speak to your local utility, such as the Fort Frances Power Corp., which partnered with the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board to offer this program.

The FFPC will put you into contact with DSSAB to find out if you are eligible.

“[LEAP] is a grant program that’s intended to provide emergency relief,” said Dougan.

“In essence, if you’re having difficulty paying your bill, you might have received a disconnection notice, and you just need a little bit of money to help you out, then this is where this program will come in place and help you financially,” she explained.

To be eligible for a LEAP grant, you must meet all of the following criteria:

•be an existing customer of the utility providing the funding (such as the FFPC);

•reside at the address for which there are arrears; and

•have a pre-tax household income at or below the Statistics Canada Low-Income Cut-Off + 15 percent.

The community size you live in, and the number of family members in the household, also will be considered, noted Dougan, as well as whether you’ve tried to pay your bill before and whether the grant will help you maintain your service or get you connected again (if you’ve been disconnected).

To apply for LEAP, you must:

•contact your utility and find out who your social agency is;

•call the agency and do a pre-screening on the telephone;

•book an in-person appointment with them, and have all individuals in the household attend (if accessibility is an issue, an interview by phone may be allowed);

•attend the appointment and complete a LEAP application with a case worker (you’ll be asked to sign an disclosure to allow your case worker to speak with your utility about your account);

•bring energy bills to the appointment to show your arrears, as well as any disconnection notices;

•the main applicant needs to bring two pieces of ID (all other adults have to produce one piece);

•bring proof showing how much your rent or mortgage is, as well as evidence of household income (pay stubs, income tax return, etc.); and

•bring a bank statement showing how much money you have.

Dougan said the amount of the LEAP grant is based on how much you owe, to a maximum of $500 per household per year (if you are electrically-heated, this amount can increase to $600).

Since it is grant, you don’t have to pay the money back.

Once you’ve applied, your case worker will let you know as soon as possible whether it was approved or denied.

If you are approved, the payment will be made on your behalf by the social agency to your utility (this takes about two weeks to process).

If you are denied, the OEB has an internal review and appeals process, so you can challenge your application.

This must be done within 10 days of finding out whether it was successful or not.

If you do not qualify for LEAP, or if LEAP doesn’t cover all your arrears, Dougan said you can ask the DSSAB about the Emergency Energy Fund.

Or if you are eligible for Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program, you may be able to obtain assistance with energy arrears through the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB).

Customer service

Running parallel with the LEAP program, the OEB has new customer service rules that came into effect at the beginning of October.

“If you are eligible for LEAP, if you have been identified as a low-income consumer, then all of these customer service rules are available to you,” said Dougan.

“You just need to call up your utility and ask for them.”

They’re as follows:

•Security deposits, waivers, and refunds

If you have just must moved to a new home, you can request that the security deposit your utility is asking for be waived.

Similarly, if you’ve already paid a security deposit to your utility, you can request that the money be given back to you—provided you’ve already paid any outstanding arrears on the account.

•Billing errors

If a billing error has occurred and you owe your utility for an underpayment, the OEB has an extended repayment period, from 10 months to two years, for which you can pay it back.

This is based on the period in which the billing error occurred and how much is owed.

•Equal payment plans

If your utility bills monthly (which the FFPC does), you may request equalized billing. You don’t have to enroll in the automatic withdrawal payment plan.

•Disconnection

If you apply for LEAP, your case worker will call the utility and notify them you’re being assessed and you’re granted a 21-day suspension from when the can disconnect your electricity.

•Repayment of arrears

If you owe less than two times your average monthly bill, you have up until eight months to pay it. If you owe two-five times your average monthly bill, you have a year to pay it.

If you owe more than fives times your average monthly bill, you can take up to 16 months to pay it.

Under the low-income arrears agreement, you’re allowed two payment defaults before your agreement can be cancelled.

The defaults must occur over at least two months.

Also under the low-income arrears agreement, you no longer have to pay service charges for collection, disconnection, non-payment, and/or load control devices, and no further late payment charges may be imposed on you by your utility after going into this agreement.

If you successfully complete a low-income arrears agreement, you can request one at any time you need it thereafter, added Dougan.

Consumer protection

Meanwhile, with residents regularly being approached by energy retailers asking them to switch over from their current utility, the OEB also provided information at yesterday’s session on how to become an informed consumer, including your rights and responsibilities.

Lilia esi Shillingford, community outreach advisor (community and stakeholder relations) for the OEB, explained while the OEB does not regulate the rates for energy retailers and marketers, they do licence them and make sure that they comply with all the legal and regulatory obligations that licence entails.

“The Ontario Energy Board takes it pretty seriously,” Shillingford stressed.

“We’ve had a lot of complaints regarding retailers, marketers, and utilities practising some unsavoury business practices, so we’ve made sure that we are able to track, monitor, and follow what they do, and identify systemic consumer issues and how best to address them,” she remarked.

Shillingford said the OEB wants people to be informed consumers so that when someone comes to their door asking them to change their energy contract, they’ll know what to do.

If a energy retailer comes to your door, some tips to remember include:

•Know your options

You can stay with your local utility (with prices set by the OEB) or go with a retailer (which is not affiliated with the OEB or government in any way).

•Know who you are dealing with

Ask for their name, what company they work for, and any other pertinent information.

•Be aware of when to show your bill

You are under no obligation to show a copy of your energy bill to a salesperson.

However, if you do want to enter into a contract, the salesperson will need to see a copy of your bill to get your utility account number in order to process the contract.

•Know your rights

Take the time to understand your rights and responsibilities as an energy consumer.

An electricity retailer that offers you a contract also must provide you with an OEB-approved Disclosure Statement that contains important information about energy contracts.

•Take time to compare rates

The OEB’s website—www.ontarioenergyboard.ca—has an online bill calculator you can use to get a monthly bill estimate for electricity or natural gas, so you can compare what it would be with your current utility versus any potential energy retailer.

•Understand “Global Adjustment”

“Global Adjustment” is a line on your bill which reflects your share of the difference between regulated and contract prices for electricity paid to certain generators and the market prices they would have received had they not been subject to regulation or contracts.

It can be a charge or a credit.

If you buy electricity from your utility, an estimate of this amount already is reflected in the electricity Regulated Price Plan prices set by the OEB, shown on the “Electricity” line of your bill.

But if you buy from an electricity retailer, you will have to pay the “Global Adjustment” in addition to the contract price offered by the retailer (it will be shown as a separate item on your bill).

•Before agreeing to a contract, make sure you understand it

Know the key terms and conditions of the contract—the price offered, exit conditions, cancellation fees, and renewal options are all important elements.

Check with your utility to see if you still will be eligible for your utility’s equal payment plan if you enter into a contract with an electricity retailer.

•Keep a paper trail

Keep copies of all your correspondence with electricity retailers and gas marketers, including any disclosure statements, price comparisons, and contracts.

If you decide to sign a contract with an energy retailer, remember the following:

•you must receive a copy of the contract and acknowledge receipt of it;

•after you acknowledge receipt of the contract, you have 10 days to cancel it;

•you also can cancel an electricity contract up to 30 days after you receive your first bill under the contract (you will have to pay that bill, but you will not have to pay a cancellation fee); and

•you may need to “verify” the contract for it to remain valid (no later than 45 days after you acknowledge receipt of the contract, the electricity retailer/gas marketer will contact you by phone to confirm that you want to continue with the contract).

If you need help with the contract, you can contact legal aid, such as the Northwest Community Legal Clinic.

If you have a problem with an energy retailer, the OEB’s customer relations centre fields complaints, concerns, and enquires.

If you have a complaint about a retailer, the OEB first suggests you try to deal with the retailer on your own.

Keep a detailed account of your interactions with the retailer (i.e., who you spoke to, what they said, what you did, etc.)

If this is not resolved, file a complaint with the OEB, which will forward your complaint to the company and get a response (this usually takes up to 21 days).

If the response is not satisfactory to the complainant, they can ask the OEB to escalate the matter and investigate the company further.

If it appears the company is in the wrong, the OEB will ensure the company works with you to get what you want, or otherwise enforce the retailer into compliance.

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