This is no time for BGE to fail Fuel Fund

The Baltimore Sun

Electric bills are higher than ever. The economy is slowing. What a great time for Baltimore Gas and Electric not to renew a big cash grant for the Fuel Fund of Maryland, which helps low-income families pay energy bills and whose reserves have fallen by 80 percent.

"We were trying to get additional monies for this year because of the greater need," says Richard B. Phelps III, president of the fund's board. "We haven't been able to garner the funds that we were hoping to get."

BGE blames it on a misunderstanding by the Fuel Fund. It says it would welcome a new application.

"We are really trying to do the right thing for these organizations," says company spokesman Rob Gould.

But it sounds like the Fuel Fund made its need very clear. At a time when high electricity prices are minting money for BGE's parent and battering low-income customers, being tight with grants isn't just bad public relations. It's the wrong thing to do.

BGE and parent Constellation Energy decided to boost assistance for low-income customers in late 2005, when price caps were about to expire because of deregulation. The companies promised $6 million for energy conservation and $20 million for assistance paying what were soon to be much larger bills. Included was a $2 million grant for the Fuel Fund for 2006 and 2007.

"Given that energy costs are expected to be unusually high in coming months and years, Constellation Energy is taking this unprecedented step so as to help ease the financial strain for many of its customers," company boss Mayo A. Shattuck III said at the time.

But last year, after BGE rates had risen 70 percent, Constellation turned down a request for another $2.5 million cash grant for 2008 and beyond. Don Dasher, BGE's director of community relations, says the Fuel Fund applied for the $2.5 million last summer and was turned down because it was the wrong budget cycle. BGE assumed the fund would reapply, he said. "We never heard from them," he said.

We'll, you're hearing from them now.

Mary Ellen Vanni, executive director of the Fuel Fund, says she is "super concerned" about covering families who need help.

The fund, a nonprofit organization that assists households across metro Baltimore, had $3 million in reserves the day the BGE price caps expired. Now it's down to a little more than $500,000. The number of families getting assistance has risen by 45 percent, she said. For the seven months ended in January, the fund distributed $1.8 million - nearly as much as it gave out the entire previous fiscal year.

The Fuel Fund supplements other, taxpayer-supported programs that deliver heating help. BGE and Constellation are its biggest donors, and they pulled back just when a slowing economy hurts the fund's ability to solicit individual donations.

Yes, the companies help the community in other ways. Constellation gave $8.1 million last year through United Way and other avenues, almost all of which stayed in Maryland, Gould said. They make other fuel assistance and energy conservation money available through the Baltimore Community Foundation.

The company still gives $200,000 each year to help cover the fuel fund's administrative costs. Two years ago, BGE also agreed to double annual credits for low-income households to $2 million, although part of those credits are covered by ratepayers, not Constellation shareholders. That continues.

But helping people pay their power bills ought to be at the top of the charity list for Constellation, which made $822 million in profit last year. For those at the bottom of the income scale, affordable power is a matter of safety, health and especially a secure environment for young children to grow and thrive.

Constellation's increase in assistance two years ago seemed calculated to blunt the impact of the imminent, post-cap rate shock. Don't just buy good PR when you think you need it, Constellation. Rates are still high. You just agreed to $533 million in rebates and credits for BGE customers of all incomes. Now kick in a few more million for those who need it most.

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