With residents in six Burlington County towns facing a potential increase of more than 14 percent in their bills for natural gas, Burlington County Freeholders recently called on the New Jersey State Senate and Assembly to adopt bipartisan legislation that will give customers more information and a better chance to be heard when utility companies seek increases in gas, electric, water and sewer rates.
“Most homeowners have no clue that their utility rates are increasing until they see it in their bill,” said Freeholder Director Bruce Garganio. “The State’s rate approval process is a cluttered bureaucracy that purposefully keeps ratepayers totally in the dark. Today we are asking the legislature to approve bipartisan, common sense, legislation that will require more transparency and accountability from the utility companies.”
The resolution that Garganio brought before the freeholder board specifically calls on the leadership in the legislature “to take every step necessary to advance” a four-bill reform package previously introduced by the 8th District legislators and boasting co-sponsors from across both sides of the aisle. The Freeholder Board unanimously approved the resolution.
Garganio’s resolution cited a pending request by South Jersey Gas for a 14.4 percent increase — which he has publically and vocally opposed — that would affect ratepayers in the Burlington County municipalities of Evesham, Medford, Medford Lakes, Shamong, Tabernacle and Woodland.
Two years ago, Garganio successfully contested a 20 percent rate increase sought by New Jersey American Water. Ultimately, that increase was cut in half.
“These types of increases are price gouging, period,” Garganio said. “At a time when all local and county government is bound by a two-percent tax and spending cap, we have utilities picking our residents’ pockets. Ultimately the reforms we are calling for today are aimed at making New Jersey more affordable, especially for our middle class and residents on fixed incomes.”
The reform measures, among other things, call for customers to receive a printed notice of proposed rate increases in their monthly bills, and require the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to hear directly from the public before taking action on the companies’ rate increase petitions.
The legislation also calls for more notice of public hearings, and for customers to be notified when the Division of Rate Counsel reaches a settlement with the utility — and to provide an explanation of the settlement before the BPU or Office of Administrative Law acts on it.
Garganio recently wrote Administrative Law Judge William Todd Miller, and called on him to reject South Jersey Gas’ request for an increase.
“I have to emphasize that this is bi-partisan legislation; it has support on both sides of the aisle,” Garganio said. “But it needs to get through the legislative committees and before the full Senate and Assembly for a vote. Every legislator should have an opportunity to vote for the best interests of their constituents on this issue.
“At the very least residents deserve an opportunity to be properly informed and to speak up against increases that make it harder for them to pay their bills before those increases are already voted on. That’s all we’re asking for. When it comes to the most recently proposed increase from South Jersey Gas, we are talking about a constituency that probably hasn’t even been told that a rate increase is on the horizon. Let me be clear, I intend to stand up for each and every affected resident and business.”