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Seniors’ advocate wants Nalcor, Newfoundland and Labrador government to say more on power rates

Suzanne Brake is Newfoundland and Labrador’s seniors’ advocate.
Suzanne Brake is Newfoundland and Labrador’s seniors’ advocate. - Ashley Fitzpatrick

‘That’s a lot of worried people’

On Tuesday morning, Newfoundland and Labrador’s seniors’ advocate, Suzanne Brake, spoke with a woman whose income is $17,046 a year. (The caller was not named by the advocate for privacy reasons.) They talked about power rates.

“She explained and described to me exactly what she pays for everything,” Brake said, flipping a page in the notebook in front of her, where she had written down numbers during the conversation.

The woman told Brake that she typically has to plan ahead to purchase anything, like a new bra or shoes. She takes a medication that requires her teeth to be professionally cleaned twice a year — something she already struggles to pay for.

Brake said the caller is not yet 70, just one of many seniors she has spoken with since her November 2017 appointment who are fearful of what might happen with power bills, especially in light of Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project costs.

N.L. Hydro proposes to raise rates to mitigate Muskrat Falls effect

Andrew Parsons addresses power rate concerns
Prepare for higher power bills (March 2016)

A public statement was issued by Brake on Tuesday morning, calling for more information for seniors on what they can expect regarding power rates. The next step, she suggested to The Telegram, would include detailing what might be done to protect the province’s most vulnerable seniors.

Brake said it’s important to remember seniors age 65 and older make up nearly 20 per cent of provincial residents, but are not a homogenous group. As with other age brackets, some are financially better off than others.

As she’s met with seniors around the province, she’s heard anxiety across the board. “Everybody is worried and concerned about the proposed, or the anticipated, increase in the cost of electricity,” she said.

But in her advocacy role, she said she’s most concerned at this point about the state of the most vulnerable seniors, financially speaking. That includes the roughly 15,000 senior couples (30,000 people) with income under $41,200 a year in the province, and the roughly 11,000 single seniors with incomes of less than $24,300 a year.

“That’s a lot of worried people,” she said, adding many others live on fixed incomes, with limited ability to obtain paid work even if they wanted to take that on in the face of rising costs.

Statistics Canada shows the province has the highest rate of home ownership in the country, but Brake said that doesn’t make the power issue any more manageable for seniors in the lowest income brackets.

“These people, where are they going to get $4,000 to buy a heat pump?” she asked.

She said home-repair programs and energy-efficiency programs are already being tapped by seniors, but not all can afford it. And for those who can, it doesn’t do away with their concerns.

As for heating alternatives, she said there’s been a lot of talk about increased use of wood stoves and wood heat, but people forget some of the most vulnerable seniors cannot physically cut wood or even stack and handle a cord of wood delivered to their driveway.

“The older you get, the more difficult it is to do that. So, there’s that kind of little added complication,” Brake said, adding that in post-cod-moratorium Newfoundland, many adult children moved away and are not there to handle such chores in a way they might have been in the past.

There is money offered by the government specifically to assist low-income seniors, but there are limitations. Brake said the woman she spoke with that morning would get about $43 a month back from the provincial and federal governments, and it will now have to go directly to covering electricity rate increases being described at the Public Utilities Board.

So what about the “rate smoothing” plan proposed this week by Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro? Could it help if seniors started to pay now on the Muskrat Falls project costs, and limit the increase to follow once the project is online?

Brake said it’s not a welcome idea.

“Well, if you were 80, would you want to be participating in that?” she asked.

“Seniors don’t want to be paying for electricity that they might use down the road.”

Mainly, she said, she already speaks to seniors choosing between the cost of medications and the cost of food, seniors who have foregone dental care to the detriment of their health in order to afford their current light bills, and she hears the worry about power rates.

She thinks something can be done about that, at least.

She mentioned The Telegram’s recent story on a power rate protest at the Public Utilities Board office in St. John’s, saying she was struck by comments included there from Colin Holloway, from a letter sent to organizer Keith Fillier. That was the first she had heard of a rate mitigation committee within the Department of Natural Resources, said to be working on the power cost problem.

Meanwhile, the fears being expressed today were raised more than two years ago in the House of Assembly, in March 2016, when NDP MHA Gerry Rogers (now NDP leader) asked about the affordability of rates.

“Like the member opposite,” Premier Dwight Ball replied at the time, “we, too, understand that we have many people in our province right now — many low income, particularly widows and so on, many of our seniors right now — they do struggle. It is not lost on us with an understanding of knowing that electricity rates play an important part.”

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