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BPU Takes First Steps Toward Distributing $25 Million in Energy Assistance Funds

Frustrated critics complain about agency's slow pace in getting the program off the ground.

Ten months after being told to help low-income households pay their electric and gas bills, a state agency yesterday took steps to begin distributing $25 million to the needy.

The Board of Public Utilities (BPU) voted to begin soliciting bids for organizations to distribute the money, a process the five commissioners hope leads it to begin awarding money by early next year. The action comes at a time when lawmakers have expressed frustration with the slow pace of getting the program off the ground.

In January, former Gov. Jon Corzine signed a bill into law that appropriated $25 million from the so-called societal benefits charge (SBC), a fee paid by utility customers that helps fund clean energy and low-income energy assistance programs, to help senior citizens and others pay their electric and gas bills.

Last month, Assembly Democrats issued a release complaining the money had yet to be allocated, even though the state is heading into winter months.

"The legislation approving this year’s utility assistance grants has been on the books since January 15, yet, by all accounts, the governor has not even begun the process of awarding the money to the organizations who distribute it," said Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen). "Come December, it would be truly be a shame to see millionaires enjoying their tax break while we watch families in need slowly freeze, all because the Governor decided to drag his feet."

BPU President Lee Solomon declined to respond to the criticism, saying the agency was following a process recommended by the Attorney General’s office. The opinion said the state should target nonprofit organizations that have experience in administering financial assistance programs and have service locations in, or to be located in, New Jersey.

Solomon also noted there is currently a winter moratorium in effect preventing gas and electric utilities from shutting off service to customers for nonpayment of bills.

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