Economy

MLAs suggest ‘customer crisis fund’ replaces limiters

Last modified: December 2, 2021 at 12:59pm


A fund that helps customers clear their power corporation debts should replace the use of limiters that cut power to homes, a committee of MLAs has recommended.

The NWT Power Corporation uses devices known as limiters to restrict the flow of electricity to residences, and cut it off completely every 10 to 15 minutes, when payment is more than 28 days late.

While the corporation has argued their use is a standard practice among Canadian utility companies, Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson said last year limiters are “inhumane” in northern communities where temperatures routinely drop below -40C.

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Jacobson subsequently proposed legislation that would remove power distributors’ ability to disconnect indebted customers during the coldest periods of the year.

This week, MLAs who considered Jacobson’s proposal said they had developed some recommendations that, while not directly endorsing the legislation Jacobson sought to enact, tried to address the challenges that may cause people to fall into debt and limiters to be used.

“I don’t think that the bill resolves the underlying problems,” said Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly. “Committee was struggling with a way to try to do that and came up with, I think, some good recommendations.”

The main issue is that banning the use of limiters removes a key means for the NWT Power Corporation to try to recover debt. Without limiters, a serious consequence people indebted to the corporation may face is removed.

Without that consequence, customers may be more likely to owe the corporation money and never pay it off, meaning the rest of the territory’s ratepayers will be asked to step in and cover the loss.

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MLAs said they had wrestled with how to solve the conundrum of removing limiters from use without the end result being a rate rider for all the people who did pay their bills.

The solution landed upon still means ratepayers cover losses, but through a “customer crisis fund” established ahead of time for people in arrears to fall back on.

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson said the crisis fund should be modelled after one already offered in British Columbia. The fund would provide grants to customers who are “experiencing a temporary financial crisis and who have fallen into arrears.”

Johnson told the legislature on Tuesday such a fund would “create some transparency.”

He said: “If you have arrears, ratepayers are going to pay for them anyway, so why don’t we provide some guidance and a clear path forward – that if someone lost their job or is in a crisis state, they could apply to get a grant.

“I think this is the cleanest way to do it, to make sure we know exactly who is falling into arrears and when we can help them, as opposed to the current state, which is some people have massive arrears and deficits on their power bill which ultimately are being passed on to ratepayers.

“I do support this recommendation. I expect it also may get some pushback when people see a little crisis fund on all of their bills but I think, preemptively, this is the best way to solve the problem.”

After this article was first published, Johnson said on Twitter he anticipated such a fund would amount to an additional $3 per year on ratepayers’ bills.

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly said precedents existed in other aspects of NWT life.

“The concept of this is really not that much different than 9-1-1, you know, in that people do pay an extra bit on your phone bills to support 9-1-1,” O’Reilly said.

“In Yellowknife, we pay a little surcharge on our water bills so that if there’s a break between the foundation of your home and the main line in the middle of the street, it gets covered. There’s a deductible amount but it’s a similar kind of concept.

“So this is not breaking new ground by any measure, even here in the Northwest Territories.”

Allowing customers to draw from the crisis fund would ensure debts are covered promptly and prevent the need for limiters to be deployed.

Other recommendations included:

  • a review of a 2018 policy change that shifted responsibility for electricity consumption from the NWT Housing Corporation to tenants, which MLAs believe may have simply led more people to claim income assistance or fall into arrears;
  • asking that the housing corporation ensure all homes are fit for habitation, so that people don’t need “improvised methods” to heat them;
  • ensuring appliances in housing units meet federal energy efficiency standards; and
  • improving communication between utility companies and customers.

All of the recommendations were approved in the legislature, which has the effect of requiring that cabinet respond to those recommendations within 120 days.

The territorial government is, however, not obliged to agree to the recommendations or take action.

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