TORONTO – Ontario Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault is defending the fact that nearly $12 million was spent on consultants and advertising for a plan that offers discounts to low-income electricity customers.
About 145,000 of an estimated 500,000 eligible families have been approved to get between $30 and $50 a month taken off their electricity bills since the Ontario Electricity Support Program started last January.
“Twelve million (dollars) to have 145,000 families, and hopefully more, to sign up for this program is money well spent,” Thibeault said Tuesday. “These families need to apply for the program, but in order to apply they need to know about it.”
The program run by the Ontario Energy Board has delivered about $21 million worth of rebates to low income families so far, added Thibeault.
The budget for the program is up to $225 million, and “just five per cent was allocated to initial start-up costs to administer, design, run and promote the program to make sure that Ontarians get the help they need,” said Thibeault’s spokeswoman, Katrina Xavier, in an email.
The Progressive Conservatives accused the Liberals of mismanaging the program because $9.3 million was spent on consultants and $2.4 million on media and advertising.
“Do you approve of $9 million worth of consultants to figure out how to hand out the rebates?” asked PC energy critic John Yakabuski. “Why wouldn’t you have just applied this (rebate) to the households with the lowest incomes?”
Thibeault said it’s difficult to implement a program with a means test for income because it has to involve the Canada Revenue Agency, which requires “a wet signature” on applications. The province cannot just give the rebates to people on welfare and social assistance payments, who are obviously low-income, so it had to create a brand new program.
“We had to set up a customer care centre. We had to set up an application centre. We had to work with 72 (electricity) distributors. We had to work with our indigenous communities,” he said.
The New Democrats said it looks like the Liberals are once again rewarding their friends in the consulting sector, while the number of families eligible for the program who still defaulted on their electricity bills jumped 25 per cent last year.
“The average size of the unpaid bills was $670, a 70-per-cent increase from two years ago,” said NDP critic Peter Tabuns. “Money is clearly making its way to consultants and advertisers, but it’s not making it to the people who are in need.”
Thibeault insisted it’s “essential” that the government communicate the on-bill credits to eligible families, and suggested it was at least partly the Tories’ fault that so many haven’t applied for the rebates.
“It was people that would come in from opposition ridings, specifically the PC party, they didn’t know that this program existed,” he said.
The OEB’s advertising campaign for the electricity support program includes radio, print, newsletters, social media, 275 transit shelters and inserts in hydro bills.
To qualify for the maximum amount, a family of six must have a household income of $28,000 or less, or a family of seven could have an income up to $39,000.