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Jul-28-2007 05:15printcomments

Energy Assistance Funds in Oregon Get Boost

Gov. Kulongoski signs assistance bill into law, raising amount available to help Oregon families with electricity and heating.

Ted Kulongoski photo

(SALEM, Ore. ) - Winter is looking a little warmer for Oregon residents who need help paying their electric bills.

On Friday, Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed into law Senate Bill 461, which increases funding levels to support low-income bill payment assistance programs.

SB 461, sponsored by the Community Action Directors of Oregon, passed the Legislature with the support of a broad coalition including low-income advocates, the Citizens' Utility Board, Pacific Power, Portland General Electric and the Fair and Clean Energy Coalition.

The law is expected to increase the statewide low-income electric bill payment assistance charge by about 17 cents per month for a residential customer to a total charge of about 50 cents per month, effective Jan. 1st, 2008.

The actual rate will be subject to approval by the Oregon Public Utility Commission.

The low-income electric bill payment assistance charge stems from electric utility restructuring legislation passed in Oregon in 1999.

It is funded through a line item on the monthly bills of customers of Pacific Power and Portland General Electric.

On a monthly basis, the funds go to a special account maintained by Oregon Housing and Community Services and that state agency administers the funds through local nonprofit organizations.

The new law also increases the cap on the program to $15 million in 2008, from $10 million, meaning that much more can be collected and more can be done to help people who need it.

"This is very important news for low-income residents who need a little help to cover their winter heating needs and keep their families safe and warm," said Jim Abrahamson, Oregon energy partnership coordinator for the Community Action Directors of Oregon. "Senate Bill 461 increases the level of funding available to help people who need it. Many worked hard to make this bill happen, from the community action agencies on the front lines, to companies like Pacific Power that help collect, and provide their own contributions to energy assistance funds.

"The new funding level established by SB 461 and any additional contributions are particularly important this year because of the recent suspension of the Bonneville Power Administration's Residential Exchange Credit that passed along benefits of the federal hydro system to two-thirds of Oregon electricity customers. This suspension has added to the burden for customers who may already be struggling," Abrahamson added.

"Too many Oregonians struggle each month to make ends meet and often have to choose between keeping their homes warm in the winter months or putting food on the table," said Gov. Kulongoski. "This bill is an example of good public policy that truly helps improve the lives of our citizens by increasing the level of assistance available for electricity bills for low-income Oregonians. It also represents a good public-private partnership thanks to the generous contributions of utilities such as Pacific Power, its customers and employees, and other Oregonians who join the state in putting additional resources toward serving those needs."

Pacific Power customers have for many years helped provide additional funding to low-income programs.

Contribution envelopes for Oregon Heat, Inc., the nonprofit organization that administers the donated funds, are typically included in customer bill mailings in November and February.

Pacific Power employees, the Pacific Power Foundation and company shareholders have added to that fund.

"When our company became part of the MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company in 2006, we promised to raise and maintain company funding levels for energy assistance for five years regardless of the amount donated from other sources," said Pat Reiten, president of Pacific Power. "It is that same spirit of commitment that drove us to support SB 461 -- it's the right thing to do. It's what Oregonians do, they help each other. We join many others in thanking the legislature and the governor for making SB 461, and its benefit to our neighbors, a reality.

"Our customers have played a significant role in providing funding for these programs," Reiten said. "The support they offer their neighbors is much appreciated, and we know that will continue."

In 2006, nearly 13,000 individual and family households benefited from assistance, including some 6,000 families served by Pacific Power.

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