RICHMOND, Va. (WFXR) – Some utility customers could be at risk of having their services shut off after a statewide ban on disconnections expires at midnight. Regulators say there are steps people can take to prevent that from happening.
What’s next for the moratorium?
Protections for customers struggling to pay the bills during the coronavirus pandemic were first put in place in mid-March. They were subsequently extended four times to allow lawmakers to pass a long-term solution.
As it became clear the General Assembly wouldn’t meet that goal by the Oct. 5 deadline, Gov. Ralph Northam asked the State Corporation Commission to extend the moratorium yet again–a request the regulator denied.
As protections for non-payment end, plans to extend the moratorium indefinitely are held up in the General Assembly. The House and Senate have to come to a consensus on their budget proposals before the ban can resume.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said lawmakers could finalize a budget by the end of this week. She said both proposals would stretch the moratorium until 60 days after the end of the governor’s state of emergency, which has no set cut off.
McClellan is calling on utility companies to honor the moratorium until the new one takes effect.
“We’re protecting customers. You do not want in the middle of a health pandemic for anyone to lose gas, electricity or water,” McClellan said.
What should customers do now?
Dominion Energy, the state’s largest electricity provider, has already said they will not shutoff service while the General Assembly completes the budget.
It’s still unclear how other utilities will respond. SCC Spokesperson Ken Schrad said their order applied to about 100 smaller providers across the state.
Schrad said some consumer protections are still intact, despite the temporary pause in the moratorium.
He said the Commission ordered all jurisdictional utilities to offer extended payment plans of up to 12 months. The SCC further advised that customers who make a good-faith effort to make these payments should not be disconnected nor charged late fees.
“The Commission really is encouraging customers to contact their utility,” Schrad said. “The worst thing you can do is just keep ignoring the monthly bill. That could lead to a cut off in service.”
McClellan said the Senate’s budget also requires utilities to set up payment plans for customers over up to 24 months, starting 60 days after the state of emergency expires and the legislative moratorium ends.
Could customers see higher rates because of pandemic losses?
Schrad said, as of July 1, Virginians owed more than $184 million in past-due utility bills–a number that has almost certainly grown since. He said concerns over how utilities will offset these losses were central to their decision to deny Gov. Northam’s latest extension request.
“The Commission said in that order this just isn’t sustainable,” said Schrad. “At some point in time, it’s going to have to be recovered, more than likely through a rate increase by these utility companies.”
Schrad said it’s too soon to tell how an indefinite moratorium could impact prices for paying customers down the line.
Dominion Energy Spokesperson Rayhan Daudani said Virginians shouldn’t worry about possible increases until 2024 when the SCC will review and authorize such requests.
Will any debt be forgiven?
The General Assembly is looking for ways to pay off some of this debt in order to ease the burden on utility companies and customers.
The House’s proposal commits $120 million in federal CARES Act funding for debt cancellation. It also directs Dominion Energy to forgive bills for customers that are 60 days past due as of August 31st, according to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Torian’s office.
The Senate’s proposal doesn’t contribute CARES Act dollars and would forgive customers 30 days or more in arrears as of Sept. 30. Lawmakers from both chambers are negotiating to settle these differences.
McClellan’s office said, under the Senate plan, Dominion would have to contribute an estimated $115 million, which could be paid for with money the company overcharged customers in recent years.
Kenneth Gilliam, policy director for the New Virginia Majority, sent 8News the following statement:
“Low-income households of color are more vulnerable to increased utility costs and debt. Providing them and other utility customers with the refunds they deserve from Dominion Energy overcharges, requires stronger utility accountability in the proposed state budget, especially when Virginia’s families need it most.”Kenneth Gilliam, policy director for the New Virginia Majority
Daudani said Dominion supports efforts to forgive customer debt but they have concerns about prematurely setting spending commitments for distributing over earnings.
“We’ve been supportive of efforts to give our customers clean slates going forward so that they don’t find themselves falling farther and farther behind on their bills,” Daudani said.
Daudani said Dominion has also expanded its energy share program, which can help people catch up on their bills.
“If you have to choose between paying your electric bill and paying for your rent and paying for your medicine please make the right choices, we’re going to be here to work with you,” Daudani said.
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