By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The state Consumer Advocate wants state regulators to produce emergency rules on utility disconnections for customers failing to pay their bills.
The governor’s office, the electric utilities and the Public Utilities Commission reached agreement on a repayment program Friday for residential and commercial customers who cannot pay their bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic without input from the Consumer Advocate or other advocacy groups, according the Donald Kreis, the consumer advocate.
An emergency order issued by Gov. Chris Sununu on March 17 instituting a moratorium on disconnections during the pandemic was rescinded June 30. The order allowed a six-month period for customers to pay what they owe without charges once the emergency declaration ended.
The new emergency order issued June 30 ends the moratorium July 15 and disconnection orders could begin Sept. 16 for residential customers without a 12-month arrangement to pay what is owed. No charges would apply until after Oct. 1.
Disconnection notices to commercial customers could begin Aug. 15 and charges would not apply until Sept. 1.
“The Office of the Consumer Advocate was not involved in any of these discussions,” Kreis writes in his petition for emergency rules, “and did not learn of them until after they had occurred.”
Kreis’s petition can be read here: http://indepthnh.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/OCA-emergency-petition-200701-fnl.pdf
He notes he proposed a repayment arrangement more favorable to residential customers than the one agreed to by the governor, PUC and utilities, as did representatives from New Hampshire Legal Assistance during a status conference on June 17.
Kreis notes in his petition neither he nor the legal assistance representative were told negotiations were ongoing with the governor, PUC and utilities at that time.
He said the pandemic is ongoing and the utilities have filed reports indicating the past due bills have increased substantially over a year ago. The increase for Eversource customers behind on their payments is 45 percent, Unitil 28 percent and Liberty 29 percent.
The changes between the emergency orders are significant for residential ratepayers, he said, and the issue needs to be addressed quickly.
While he does not doubt the sincerity of those involved in the negotiations, he said the agreement reached will have a significant impact on customers, particularly those who have difficulty paying their bills in a pandemic and economic depression.
“Customers are suffering and customers are dying,” Kreis writes. “Whatever protections replace Emergency Order #3 is a question that should be addressed publicly so that ratepayer representatives can be heard and have a fair opportunity to influence the Commission’s decision making.”
The Consumer Advocate asks the PUC to begin immediate work on developing rules for disconnecting customers for non-payment and for developing payment agreements between the utilities and their customers.
Kreis filed the petition Wednesday with the PUC.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.