February 28th, 2024

Council opts to wait on scope of provincial utility relief

By COLLIN GALLANT on November 23, 2022.

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

A proposal to offer a local utility relief program in Medicine Hat is on hold until after city council and staff see what the province proposes to take the edge off high utility bills.

Two weeks ago council called for options to help “the most disadvantaged” Hatters during expected record high utility prices this winter, but the item was moved from Monday’s agenda to early next month.

That was one day before Premier Danielle Smith’s TV address to the province on Tuesday, which ended up unveiling the province’s inflation relief strategy.

“The province has said that they are looking at many ways to help,” said Coun. Ramona Robins during a separate debate Monday about new utility rate formulas.

“I’d rather see the (spring 2023 local) rate review and find out what the province is going to do first.”

Since the spring, the province has offered $50 per month paid directly to all residential power bills, but the measure was set to end in December before Smith’s Tuesday announcement, which includes an additional $200 per household off power bills.

A provincial natural gas price cap kicks in when prices reach $6.50 per gigajoule, about $1 more than the current price, and that will remain in place.

Smith’s announcement could affect what the city utility company and council is prepared to do. It could still dovetail to the provincial program, or the matter could be considered closed, say sources.

On Monday, local administrators were prepared to suggest something similar to the city’s existing “fair entry” program, which discounts entry to city facilities for low-income earners.

Residents who apply, and show proof their household annual income is below the “low income” line determined by Statistics Canada, can receive half-off entry to pools, rec facilities or the Esplanade, to a maximum of $200 per year.

The utility proposal suggests providing $50 credits on utility bills during the six highest-use months for electricity (January to March and July to September), for a total of $300.

For a city of Medicine Hat’s size, the low-income threshold based on income tax filings for 2020 was $18,423 for a single person, $22,424 for a couple, or $34,823 for a family of four.

Staff estimate about 5,000 households might qualify, and if half of those apply, the cost would total $1.4 million.

In 2021 the city provided a one-time $136 credit on utility bills to all customers at a total cost of $4.5 million. In 2020, council directed $1 million in reserve funds be forwarded to the Community Warmth Program, which helps customers facing disconnection on a one-time basis.

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