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No hydro rate relief yet for poor

Government still talking, minister says
Increase set to take effect next week

Toronto Star - March 25, 2004
by Caroline Mallan and Richard Brennan

The provincial government doesn't yet have a plan that would help low-income people offset rising hydro prices when they take effect next Thursday, Community and Social Services Minister Sandra Pupatello conceded yesterday.

"We certainly hope that the increases won't be much, but when we talk about low-income people, a very minimal increase in a bill can have a big impact. It can just be the last straw and we have to recognize that," Pupatello said.

The minister added that she hopes to put some shape to recent discussions on the topic in the coming weeks, rather than waiting for people's housing to be placed at risk by utility bills they cannot pay.

"We are talking about it in advance of things happening ... before the evictions hit," she said. But the minister would not guarantee that relief would come in advance of the April 1 price hike.

Energy Minister Dwight Duncan said yesterday most people will be able to absorb a 5 to 6 per cent hike, even though it comes on the heels of a 14 per cent price jump in natural gas approved this week.

"Our view is that the price increases ... will be relatively modest for small consumers and with modest changes in consumption people should be able to absorb the increases," Duncan said, adding the increase will equal about $10 per month in additional cost.

"We have to look at creative ways to assist people who may find themselves in difficulty," he said.

Effective April 1, the price of electricity is rising from the cap of 4.3 cents per kilowatt hour put on by the former Conservative government to 4.7 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 750 kilowatt hours used and 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour for usage after that.

Duncan said the increase is necessary to ensure that it is attractive enough to investors to build new supply, which is desperately needed in Ontario.

But when he first announced his change last fall, he said the poor and small businesses would have assistance to help them adjust to the higher prices.

NDP MPP Marilyn Churley (Toronto-Danforth) said a plan for the poor should be rolled out before rates increase. "If they are going to raise them, they shouldn't do so unless and until there is a program in place for low-income people," Churley said, adding she worries that homelessness will increase as the poor are forced to choose between paying the bills, the rent or buying food.

"People are already choosing between paying the rent and feeding the kids. ... Low income people will be forced out of their homes, it's as simple as that."

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