June 24--Q: Can you get the history on the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission? I noticed on my last Xcel Energy bill it stated, effective Jan. 1, 2018, the monthly "affordability charge" that funds income energy discount programs increased 4 cents. Does everyone pay this? What other bills have this?
It stated this money goes to senior citizens and people that can't afford to pay their bills. I'm a senior citizen trying to make ends meet! Where does this money go and who distributes it?
I called Minnesota Valley Action (Council) and you can't find out who is receiving assistance. This looks like a donation, so it should be tax deductible! Reason I called is I have a neighbor who rents and is probably getting assistance. She has her Christmas lights on 24 hours a day. I was told they just give and don't investigate.
A: OK, lots of questions here: the history of the Public Utilities Commission, who pays the "affordability charge" and on which bills, who's eligible for energy assistance, whether the neighbor with the all-day, all-night Christmas lights is getting assistance... .
In a way, the PUC goes back to the 1870s with the appointment of the first railroad commissioner and the creation of the Railroad and Warehouse Commission in 1895. After telephones came into widespread use, telephone service was regulated as well. And in 1975, Minnesota became the 48th state to regulate the natural gas and electrical power industries and the rates they charge.
"One of the key functions of the commission in performing this mission is to balance the private and public interests ... and to make decisions that appropriate balance these interests ...," according to the commission.
As for the "Affordability Charge," Xcel Energy gives a PUC-approved summary online through its "Understanding Your Bill" page. It's a "surcharge to recover the costs of offering bill payment assistance and discount programs for low-income customers."
A similar charge is on natural gas bills and aims to "reduce natural gas service disconnections." And telephone bills have a "universal service" charge to help subsidize land lines and cellular service in rural parts of the country and other high-cost areas.
The gas "affordability charge" is billed to almost everyone, the exception being "interruptible customers." If Ask Us Guy understands it right, "interruptible customers" are a few hundred in Minnesota who are enrolled in a program where gas companies can curtail gas flow to those customers in times of shortages (such as when a pipeline breaks). In return, the customers receive discounts on their bills.
But basically everybody pays the charges.
Next up, who's eligible? The reader said he or she is elderly, so we'll assume no kids at home. The income cap for eligibility is currently $25,000 for a one-person household, $32,692 for a couple. For a couple with two kids, it would be $48,077.
As for the reader's attempt to find out if the neighbor-with-the-24-hour-Christmas-lights was on the program, it appears the folks at the Minnesota Valley Action Council were following the law when they refused to answer.
The 2018 policy manual that MVAC and other program administrators must follow specifically notes that Minnesota privacy law "provides that data on individuals collected, maintained, or created because an individual applies for energy assistance are private data ... . The collection, storage, use and release of the information shall be limited to that necessary for the administration and management of the program. The information may not be released except as permitted by the (law.)"
Even if the reader's neighbor was part of the program, she doesn't appear to be breaking any rules by not turning off the Christmas lights during the day. The policy manual, while making reference to conservation education, doesn't ask the program providers to police how recipients use electricity and gas, although overall consumption data of households is collected.
Contact Ask Us at The Free Press, P.O Box 3287, Mankato, MN 56002. Call Mark Fischenich at 344-6321 or email your question to [email protected]; put Ask Us in the subject line.
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