Nova Scotia support groups see influx in calls for energy bill assistance

With winter approaching, there is a concern that an increased number of Nova Scotians will be further burdened economically and fall behind in their energy bill payments, as financial challenges in the wake of the pandemic continue.

The Salvation Army Maritimes Division says they are seeing an increase this year already in calls for support from individuals who are having difficulty paying their Nova Scotia power bill.

Read more: NS Power will keep the lights on during COVID-19, even if bills are unpaid

Although the Salvation Army can’t offer financial support to these individuals, they do offer supports like mediation between the client and Nova Scotia Power, says public relations director Maj. Jamie Locke.

“In the case of covering off the costs of an electricity bill or meeting the demands that are upon the household, that’s where the mediation work comes in and we contact the service provider with the client’s permission,” said Locke.

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“Hopefully, to come to a resolve and a plan that works for them.”

Early in the pandemic, Nova Scotia Power pledged to keep the lights on for customers during the COVID-19 provincial state of emergency, which remains in place for Nova Scotia.

In March, Nova Scotia Power issued a stoppage of power disconnections until the end of August, and they say disconnecting customers is a scenario they try to avoid.

“It’s all about urging people to contact us. We are here to help and we do have solutions and we are willing to work on payment plans, but we need people to call us,” said Jenn Parnell, director of customer care with Nova Scotia Power.

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Parnell couldn’t give a number on how many customers are overdue on payments or how many are on the verge of being disconnected, but did say there was an increase this year.

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“I can tell you that we are certainly seeing more customers struggle this year than in previous years, which is not surprising given the pandemic,” said Parnell.

One week into the launch of the province’s Heating Assistance Rebate Program (HARP), a whopping 22,265 applications have been submitted. That’s a 29 per cent increase in applications overall.

NDP leader Gary Burrill says no customers should be disconnected during a global pandemic and is urging the province to implement a moratorium on disconnecting power customers.

“Many, many people are working on short hours and many, many people are still in a place where they aren’t caught up on their bills,” said Burrill.

“So this original position that nobody should be cut off was the right position. The power company has taken the wrong position by discontinuing that and they need to reinstate it.”

Read more: Some Halifax residents call on Nova Scotia Power to improve preventive maintenance

The Salvation Army has a long-standing relationship with Nova Scotia Power through the annual Heat Fund program, which takes funds donated by Nova Scotia Power and the province to help its clients pay their home heating bill.

This year, Nova Scotia Power is giving more to the Heat Fund.

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“We usually donate $200,000 a year to that program,” said Parnell. “Because of COVID-19, we are increasing that donation by half a million dollars to help additional people in need.”

The Heat Fund offers maximum assistance of $400 for individuals and families.

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