HELCO rate hikes hit isle’s poor the hardest


HILO — Should a proposed electricity rate increase of 4.2 percent in 2013 be approved by the state’s Public Utilities Commission, Big Island low-income families will be among those hardest hit by higher power bills.

Last year, almost a third of all Hawaii families that sought federal assistance with paying their electricity bills were located on Hawaii Island. About 10,000 families statewide — 3,313 of whom live on the Big Island — applied for and received funds totaling $6.1 million through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, according to the state Department of Human Services.

Eligibility requirements make the funding available to families that earn at most 150 percent above the federal poverty line, said Kayla Rosenfeld, spokeswoman for the DHS. That means that a family of between four and six members earning a combined maximum of $38,565 would qualify for the electricity bill assistance.

The Hawaii County Economic Opportunity Council receives applications for isle families each year in the month of June, Rosenfeld said.

“A one-time payment is then deposited into the (qualified) applicants’ utility account around November,” she said.

In 2011, that average payment was about $553 per family, Rosenfeld said, down from a 10-year high average of $717.

Such a sum typically doesn’t come close to covering all the utility bills in a year for the average family, said Lester Seto, interim executive director with the Hawaii County Economic Opportunity Council, but it can help.

Each summer, he said, the Big Isle’s five intake offices — in Hilo, Kona, Pahoa, Naalehu and Honokaa — are jampacked with applicants for the federal electric bill assistance program. And some recipients are really able to stretch the dollars they receive.

“For some seniors, who really are frugal and don’t turn on their lights, it can last them maybe eight months,” Seto said. “For other, really big families, who may receive the maximum payment of about $700 or so, that might only last them two months.”

And, Seto said, when Hawaii Electric Light Co. rates go up, low-income families definitely feel the pressure, because the amount they receive doesn’t take increases in rates into account.

“When they come in to apply, many of our families want to know how much the payment will be this year, and they always express a sense of frustration because they realize that the electric rates will probably be going up,” he said.

When rates go up, some families are forced to make difficult choices, added Betty Wagstaff, director of community services for the Economic Opportunity Council.

“For many of our families, the money covers one or two bill payments, and that’s it. Then they’re in trouble,” she said. “I get concerned every time I see that HELCO is getting a rate increase because it has a tremendous impact on these families. Their bills are already high now. … And for the elderly, some have to make a choice each month, between buying food or paying for medicine or paying their electric bill.”

While LIHEAP is the largest program aimed at helping families pay their utility bills, the HCEOC has offered a number of other, smaller programs that do everything from handing out energy-efficient CFL light bulbs and offering free classes on energy efficiency, to giving families energy-efficient refrigerators and solar water heaters. But, Seto said many of those programs are no longer available since the grants funding them have been cut because of the federal government’s budget squeeze.

Earlier this month, HELCO requested from the state Public Utilities Commission permission to hike its electricity rates by 4.2 percent next year, generating an estimated $19.8 million in additional revenue.

The average residential home using 500 kilowatt hours in electricity a month would see a bill totaling $217.42, an increase of $8.32 from current rates.

The requested rate increase may only be approved after public input and the PUC and the state Division of Consumer Advocacy have conducted an extensive review. The PUC is expected to hold a public hearing on Oct. 29 at 6 p.m. at the Hilo High cafeteria, followed by an Oct. 30 public hearing at 6 p.m. at Kealakehe High cafeteria.