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OPUC digging to find more LEAP funds

Oshawa Power and Utilities Corporation

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

A program that helps low-income residents with their hydro bills has received a small boost, but it’s left some still wondering whether things go far enough to help those in need.

The Low-income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP), provides crucial assistance to individuals and families who may be behind on their hydro bills and risk having their power cut off.

In Oshawa, the number of people relying on the program reaches into the thousands, and historically, the Oshawa Power and Utilities Corporation (OPUC), which facilitates the program locally for the Ontario Energy Board (OEB), has seen the majority of the funds used up in the first quarter of the year.

At the start of 2017, $19,963 was available for the program. At the end of April, only $5,282 was remaining after 1,502 recipients were provided with assistance. By the end of June, only $289 remained, and by the end of August, the fund was empty.

This has led to some inside the Oshawa council chambers asking whether more can be done to help.

“As long as there are residents who can’t access the LEAP program throughout the entire year without risk of being denied, low-income residents will always be at risk,” says Councillor Amy McQuaid-England. “People in our city deserve to have access to basic power and should not be disadvantaged because they can not pay. We need to work with the OPUC and residents to look for new opportunities and program to help.”

For the OPUC, they have not been blind to the lack of funds available in the program, however, the influx of assistance is based on a formula set by the OEB using customer and usage numbers. However, this year, the OPUC was able to find a little bit of extra cash in their own process by renegotiating the contract with the service provider who administers the LEAP program on their behalf.

“I’m very sensitive to the fact that this is money that needs to get into the hands of people who need it,” says Ivano Labricciosa, the president and CEO of the OPUC.

According to financial documents from the utility’s first quarter, the OPUC was able to negotiate a five per cent reduction in the administration fee with their contractor, creating approximately $1,500 more dollars for the LEAP program. It brings the total for 2018 to approximately $27,565.

“That’s going to end up going to somebody (in need), at the end of the day, maybe one or two more households,” Labricciosa says of the extra money.

At the very least, Labricciosa hopes the additional funds can last them over the summer and through October, when the province’s annual moratorium on power shut-offs begins for the winter months, a practiced announced by the OEB in November 2017.

With that said, Labricciosa recognizes that perhaps the OEB’s system for distributing funds for the program could have its flaws, in particular, not taking into account specific aspects of each community.

“What’s missing out of that formula is the condition. Is the condition here in Oshawa much different than the condition somewhere else?” he says. “Is there a way to allocate more funds and adjust the formula or adjust the approach and if you constantly run out all the time as a utility, maybe there’s access to funds…maybe we’re running out a bit earlier and feeling the affects with a couple of other utilities, but most might not be feeling the same thing. So is there a way to treat that?”

Labricciosa says the OEB uses a formula to set the minimum amount of funds to set aside for the program. In the case of the OPUC, that equates to 0.12 per cent of the approved distribution revenue, or approximately $25,000. Any additional assistance provided through the program would have to come from the OPUC’s revenue.

“It appears the OEB only believes low-income assistance goes to a certain level or point and decides to leave the remaining responsibility to the utility or shareholder rather than admit that a one-size-fits-all program does not meet the objective because of regional economic disparity across Ontario,” Labricciosa says. “While there are unintended consequences with any assistance program developed, to suggest that others take on an additional role to supplement the OEB’s role seems counter to a regulated policy approach. I guess what I’m saying is that if the policy is not quite up to the task in meetings its objective and needs rework, then it needs to be corrected, not passed on to others.”

According to the OEB, between 2012 and 2016, over $38 million was provided through the LEAP and “Winter Warmth” a previous program, to assist over 82,000 low income customers.

According to Mary Ellen Beninger, a spokesperson with the OEB, the board also provides the Ontario Electricity Support Program (OESP) to assist those who are having trouble paying their bills, a program that was helping more than 200,000 people at the end of 2017.

The program also recently received a boost in May of last year when monthly credits were increased by 50 per cent.

“(It) translated into an additional $180 to $300 per year in on-bill credits depending on the household size and annual income,” Beninger states, noting that the eligibility for the program was also broadened to include a wider range of income levels.