Bailey Fullwiler, OEC Emerging Leader Alum, June 6, 2023
On Wednesday, March 22, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio decided to reconsider its January decision to hike Columbia Gas of Ohio’s fixed charge to $56 a month over the next five years. The PUCO’s decision to reconsider the ramifications of the proposed rate hike is a much-needed step given how devastating such hikes would be to Ohioans already struggling to make ends meet.
Across the state, Ohioans are making hard decisions between paying their utility bills and meeting other basic needs. As a social worker, I have watched families limit gas usage to dangerous levels as a way to limit their monthly charges. This rate hike will lead to more of these painful decisions and more shut-offs.
Utility shut-offs come with a ripple of consequences. A utility shut off for non-payment puts other necessities in jeopardy like housing security, continuing employment and education, transportation access, and child custody. Depending on the county and resources available, a shut-off can lead to code enforcement involvement and open the door to a criminal response, rather than a social service response.
In Central Ohio, when a client has been referred for a utility shut-off, reconnection can take anywhere from one week to one month. However, it takes several months to address all the harms that emerge along the way: job loss, housing repair needs, conflict with landlords, temporary displacement of children or seniors, hospitalizations for medical conditions, and healing from the stress and mental health concerns. Repairing these consequences takes time, resources, and multiple social service and healthcare agencies.
My experiences only account for the clients and community members who are connected to social service support and qualify for services. There are countless Ohioans who fall outside of this scope, whether due to ineligibility or other reasons, with much larger barriers to finding means to cope with the complex challenges associated with shut-offs. This is particularly important given the widespread behavioral health workplace shortages across the state.
While companies like Columbia Gas offers bill payment assistance programs, Ohioans still fall through the cracks. Single adults, parents of transition-age youth, and families just over the poverty line consistently have barriers to accessing utility assistance resources such as HEAP, PIPP, and seasonal crisis programs. These programs have complicated rules for prioritizing funds and often overlook the health, economic, and logistical barriers to receiving assistance.
The PUCO-approved plan in the Columbia Gas case includes some bill payment assistance but capped each year. For 2023, the cap is $700,000 dollars or .09% of the profits Columbia Gas reported in 2022. It is crucial that Ohioans have stronger, more comprehensive protections.
The PUCO’s green light for higher profits in this case comes while Columbia Gas posted booming profits for 2022. Earlier this year, Columbia Gas’s parent company, NiSource, announced it earned a net income of $749 million dollars. This is a more than $200 million increase from 2021. Given these massive profits, the company also raised profit forecasts for 2023. The company cited an Ohio rate case, presumably this one, as support for these higher projections.
It’s time to put the people of Ohio over profits. With this additional time to reconsider Columbia Gas’ proposal for massive rate hikes, the PUCO should understand the full consequences to the health and economic stability of Ohioans before rendering their decision.