Consumer advocates said they were encouraged by state regulators' decision Thursday to allow Indiana utilities to reinstate heating assistance programs, but the next step is up to the utilities.
The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission issued an order that allows Vectren, Citizens Gas and Northern Indiana Public Service Co. to reinstate natural gas rate discount programs that expired in May.
Dave Menzer, chairman of the Coalition to Keep Indiana Warm, said the programs that supplement government heating aid were especially necessary because of the recession. He said the utility programs helped more than 68,000 people last winter and he expects a record number of people to apply this winter.
"Clearly with the economy, we need the extra help," he said.
Consumer advocates and utilities had backed renewing the programs, but the commission's approval did come with some strings attached. For one thing, it requires the utilities to contribute at least 25 percent of the funding for the programs if they participate, an increase from the 18 to 23 percent the commission said they had supplied previously.
Jerome Polk, an attorney who represents the AARP, United Senior Action and the Citizens Action Coalition, said some of the utilities might not support such an increase.
"There's some question as to whether the utilities will step up to the plate to keep these programs running," Polk said.
NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer said the utility is still assessing the commission's order and would not be prepared to comment on the panel's action until Friday.
"The commission has proposed significant changes to the original program and we want to understand all aspects of the order before we decide our next steps," Meyer said.
Representatives for Citizens Gas and Vectren also said Thursday that their companies were reviewing the order and would not comment.
The utilities have 10 days to appeal the order. But since it isn't mandatory, it wasn't immediately clear if the companies would have to do anything if they chose not to participate.
"We hope the utilities will accept the order and keep these programs in place for this winter," Menzer said.
State Utility Consumer Counselor David Stippler, whose office represents consumers before the commission, said all utility customers would benefit from the programs' reinstatement.
"Over the last several years, these programs have reduced costs, including bad debt write-offs and collection costs that could otherwise be recovered through utility rates," Stippler said in a statement.
"The Commission's order also establishes a more appropriate balance of the costs of these programs between these utilities and their respective ratepayers, by requiring the utilities to make greater contributions to the programs going forward," he said.
While the utilities would pay one-fourth or more, the rest of the cost would be paid by ratepayers. Menzer said the average annual cost to customers would be $5 to $6 per ratepayer.
The commission also said the utilities must include their assistance programs in their next base rate cases for the programs to continue, so that regulators could further review the costs and benefits of the aid. Those rate cases are due before Oct. 31, 2012.