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    Friday, March 01, 2024

    New London, Jewett City face energy bill woes

    Jewett City and parts of New London were listed in a new study released Thursday as among the communities statewide where a huge gap exists between income levels and the ability to pay for energy and water costs.

    The study, released during a news conference at the state Capitol in Hartford by the Hartford-based energy assistance nonprofit Operation Fuel, found that more than 424,000 households in Connecticut were at risk of not being able to afford their energy bills this year, based on costs rising faster than wages.

    The total energy bill that residents cannot afford to pay was estimated to be $608 million this year, up from $440 million when Operation Fuel last released a similar report in 2020. That’s an increase of 37% over three years.

    The study’s release was attended by several state lawmakers, including state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, and state Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme. Nolan said he believes that an extra $15 million to $30 million will be authorized this year to help Connecticut households unable to pay their heating bills, and a special session may be required to get it done.

    “It would be ridiculous if we only did $15 million,” he said in a phone interview Thursday. “Let’s make an impact.”

    Cheeseman said in a phone interview that it might be difficult to rely on Congress to add funding for energy assistance this year, given its current paralysis. And if the state kicks in, “Where is the room in the budget to find this money?” she said.

    But state Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, the Senate’s Republican leader, in a statement Thursday, indicated he supported more robust funding for heating assistance in wake of the affordability gap study.

    “Operation Fuel does yeoman’s work in raising awareness about this ongoing crisis,” he said. “Benefits have plummeted for poor and working families with children, the disabled, seniors on fixed income and veterans. ... Yet time and again, the majority takes a ‘wait and see’ approach and puts its faith in a dysfunctional Washington to rescue us.”

    Conducted by the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation and titled “Mapping Household Cost Burdens May 2023: A study of energy, transportation, water, and housing affordability in Connecticut,” the report found the most vulnerable population to include working families with young children, people with medical issues and the elderly.

    Locally, the so-called “affordability gap” was most noteworthy in New London, where households in one census tract near the center of the city were on average looking at a nearly $11,000 difference between their energy bills and their ability to pay. In two other census tracts toward the center and north, the gap ranged from nearly $6,200 to more than $8,100.

    Jewett City, a village of Griswold, had average incomes significantly above these areas of New London, but households were still staring at an affordability gap of about $9,400, according to an interactive map.

    What’s more, these same areas were paying an inordinate percentage of their income for housing (including energy and utility costs as well as insurance) and transportation. In Jewett City, these costs accounted for 66% of household income, according to the study, and in one part of New London the same expenses exceeded 73% of income.

    Other areas of New London County where an affordability gap exists included other census tracts in New London and parts of Groton, Stonington (Pawcatuck) and Norwich, including the Taftville and Greeneville sections.

    “Since our last affordability update was released in 2020, Operation Fuel has experienced record demand for energy and water assistance,” Roxanna Booth, interim chief executive of Operation Fuel, said in a statement. “As more clients apply for emergency help, we have fewer resources and less time available to help.”

    Gannon Long, Operation Fuel's chief programs officer, said in a phone interview Thursday that in the past, most statewide fuel assistance has come from federal dollars sent to the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program, funneled to local organizations like the Thames Valley Council for Community Action. Operation Fuel is a small nonprofit with a budget of only about $5.5 million, and serves a much smaller population than the 100,000 or so who receive federal help, Long said.

    The state in the past has hesitated to add its own money to the energy assistance program, preferring to rely on federal dollars, but Long was hopeful that this could change this year.

    “At this point, the need is getting so great,” Long said.

    Long added that one reason Connecticut residents pay so much for electricity is because so many people are not able to afford to pay their bills, requiring companies like Eversouce Energy to write off these losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars while seeking higher rates to make up for it.

    The Operation Fuel report was the first issued by the nonprofit since the pandemic, and it included for the first time an analysis of the effect of rising water costs, though no town in New London County was listed as being overburdened.

    “Utility bill assistance providers like Operation Fuel continue experiencing overwhelming demand — including from households that never needed support for basic needs before,” according to the report’s executive summary.

    The report notes that some categories of affordability have worsened, while others such as transportation, thanks to telecommuting, have stabilized. But the combined spending on housing and transportation was deemed unaffordable in 32% of the state’s housing tracts this year, versus less than 25% just three years ago.

    Among the factors hitting state consumers, the report noted, was spiraling inflation during a one-year period ending in February 2022 and electric rates, which rose 12% in roughly the same time frame. Transportation costs also tend to be a big burden for lower-income families, accounting for 28% of their household costs, about double that for higher-income residents, the report said.

    “Southeastern Connecticut has particularly limited bus and train access, making private vehicles necessary for an adequate level of mobility,” the report added.

    The burden extends to housing, with nearly half of renters considered burdened by paying more than 30% of their income to maintain a roof over their heads. According to the report, this contrasts with 2019, when 43% were considered housing burdened.

    Operation Fuel noted that its winter and spring energy assistance program will open Jan. 8. It also provides help with water bills year-round, as funding allows. For information or to donate, visit https://operationfuel.org/.

    l.howard@theday.com

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