Minister: Government spent $34m on utility support programme

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales. – Photo by Joey Bartlett

MINISTER of Public Utilities Marvin Gonzales says government has spent $34 million on programmes meant to help low-income families with their water and electricity bills. He also says, even after increases proposed by the Regulated Industries Commission (RIC) in October, electricity rates in TT will still be the lowest in the region.

Gonzales made those remarks at the Ministry of Public Utilities (MPU) utility assistance distribution ceremony on Wednesday, where low-income families were awarded grant letters for the Residential Electrification Assistance programme, the Water Tank programme and the Electrification Programme.

He also spoke of other social support programmes available to citizens from the health and education ministries.

On October 19, the RIC announced a proposal to increase TT Electricity Commission (T&TEC) rates by between 15 and 64 per cent for residential customers, 37 and 51 per cent for small businesses, ten and 12 per cent for larger businesses, and between 58 and 126 per cent for industrial customers based on rates of consumption.

The proposal is currently being considered by Cabinet before implementation.

On Wednesday, Gonzales said, “The government has to make decisions that may appear to be unpopular. The RIC consulted with members of the public and stakeholders. This is not the responsibility of the government. It is the responsibility of an independent commission to determine an appropriate electricity rate.”

Gonzales said increasing rates was a topic that generated a lot of passion among people all over the world.

“If you wish for us to provide you with a reliable service that undertakes the necessary routine maintenance and our infrastructure, all these things cost millions and millions of dollars.

“And if we cannot provide it for ourselves, the money must come from somewhere. So T&TEC, following the law, made an application to the RIC and the law mandates the RIC to conduct public consultation and to come up with an appropriate rate. The government and T&TEC are saying, for the country to have a sustainable electricity utility company, sufficient revenue must also be generated.”

Gonzales said if the government were to accept the increased rates as recommended, TT would continue to maintain the lowest rate in the entire region and the lowest rate in the entire world.

He said Government spent $34 million on its utility assistance programme so 13,600 citizens could get help with rising utility costs.

“The government spent $18 million on our residential electrification and access programme so 17,000 people can access it and 230,000 electricity customers benefit from a rebate system that costs the government $74 million annually. You get a refund or rebate of 35 per cent meaning if your electricity bill is $200 or less, you would be given money back, 230,000 people benefit from this.

“The electrification programme expands the availability of electricity to communities and homes far away; 202,700 people have benefited from this, costing taxpayers $25 million over the last ten years.”

He said the RIC proposal of moving from a bi-monthly payment system to a monthly system would not affect the rebate or any other utility programme, saying it would be updated accordingly.

Gonzales did not say if the RIC’s proposal had been accepted by Government.

Gonzales also referred to a ceremony on Monday at which 37 families were given the keys to new or renovated homes by the Housing Ministry’s Land Settlement Agency as part of its Housing and Village Improvement programme.

He said, “When I walked during the election period, I saw the difficult circumstances some of these constituents lived in. And when I was elected as MP, I made it my duty to send my constituency staff to work with these constituents, get their forms (and) have them submitted to the ministry.

“Two years later, when I walked through the same communities, I saw a dramatic improvement in their living circumstances.

“This job can be difficult, but what we are doing here today to improve people’s living circumstances keeps me going.”

Gonzales said billions were spent on social development, education, health and MPU programmes, but that was taken for granted.

“When I speak to my colleagues in the region, they will tell you that their social programmes cannot be compared to what we have.”

Gonzales said his ministry’s utility programmes had remained fully funded even when TT’s revenues were diminished by low oil and gas prices.

“Listening to the conversation and the nastiness being spewed upon this population on a daily basis by Anil Roberts and David Nakhid, they do not represent who we are as a society.”

He called on the opposition leader to review their appointments and urged the public to adopt a spirit of gratitude.