By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The state’s electric utilities have a conceptual agreement not to disconnect low-income customers unable to pay their bills until next spring.
At a public hearing Tuesday before the Public Utilities Commission, residential advocates and utility representatives sought to find common ground to prevent residential customers adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic from losing their electric service.
Utilities, PUC staff and the governor’s office negotiated an agreement that would have begun the disconnection process in July for businesses, and in September for residential customers.
But the state Consumer Advocate and a presentative from New Hampshire Legal Assistance said more flexibility is needed for ratepayers, many facing losing $600 a week in unemployment benefits at the end of this month.
Raymond Burke of legal assistance said the disconnection process will begin right after many lose the additional federal money.
“Many people will need to modify and renegotiate with the loss of income due to the pandemic after entering into a (repayment) plan,” Burke said.
And he said a third sector is needed for low-income residents who cannot afford to pay their electric bills with more flexibility.
The public hearing was held after State Consumer Advocate Don Kreis petitioned the PUC to develop emergency rules for the disconnection agreement reached by the utilities, PUC staff and the governor’s office, saying it was negotiated in private and without input from him or other advocates.
He raised the same issue at the public hearing.
“I have never seen anything like this happen before,” Kreis said. “Usually my office and any other interested parties have an opportunity to be heard.”
Questions like the one they are discussing at the hearing are usually resolved in public by the commission, he said, not in private.
He referred to the section in law the governor’s office cites for his expanded authority to protect the health and safety of residents during an emergency, and said what happened “stretches the language near to and beyond breaking point.”
He said he proposed conditions at an earlier technical session that were more ratepayer favorable and suggested a new surge in COVID-19 infections could cause the state to pause and move backwards on reopening
Kreis said it is too early to begin down the path of collections and disconnections when many utility customers are economically stressed and unable to pay their electric bills.
Burke reiterated the point noting the additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits from one of the federal coronavirus relief bills provides about two-thirds of all the cash benefits paid to the 75,000 unemployed who qualified to date.
When the $600 ends this month, that will mean a $45 million benefit loss for the state, Burke noted.
He said his office has been contacted by two people recently, one a woman over 60 who has not returned to work who is currently receiving $835 a week in unemployment but that will go to $235 a week after July, and a single mother who has returned to few hours of work and is currently collecting $788 a week, but will go down to $238.
While the disconnection process will not begin until Sept. 16, Burke said, that is not sufficient time to analyze payment patterns.
“They may make a payment in the beginning of the agreement,” Burke said, “but what happens one or two months down the road if they are not able to return to work because of the pandemic?”
He suggested a 24-month agreement be available and a working group like one in Massachusetts be established to keep up to date on changes and make suggested agreement adjustments to the commission.
But Jess Cain of Eversource said the longer the repayment agreement the higher the rate of failure.
She said her company is trying to develop a plan that would work across the three states, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut it serves.
The three states would have a three-phase plan beginning with business customers first, then residential customers and then low-income customers who would not see services shutoff for nonpayment until after the winter moratorium next spring.
The state’s other three major electric utilities, the New Hampshire Electric Coop and Liberty said they agree conceptually with the plan but with their own modifications.
Mark Dean of the NHEC said they intend to slow down the timeline and both Gary Epler of Unitil and Michael Sheehan of Liberty said they view the agreement as the minimum and they expect to do more.
Cain noted that both Massachusetts and Connecticut offer arrears forgiveness programs that reward low-income customers who make payments with credit for a portion of what is owed. When asked by Commission Chair Dianne Martin, who pays for the program, Cain said all utility customers.
She said her company is aware of the situation after July when the $600 federal benefit goes away and evictions are expected to start.
Eversource has been contacting customers in arrears to let them know there are protection programs available, but Cain likened the situation to tax season, when people do not respond until it is close to the deadline.
“Customers do not respond until it’s really close to the disconnection date,” she said.
She noted an improvement in bill payment in June with New Hampshire the first state to reopen, but nonpayment is still 29 percent higher than it was a year ago.
She said it is harder in New Hampshire to know who is unable to pay and reach out to those customers, unlike Massachusetts that gives Eversource a monthly list of those who qualify as low-income.
Angela Zhang of Listen Community Services in Lebanon, a private non-profit, said many people are experiencing financial hardship for the first time and don’t know where to turn.
She said they are embarrassed and ashamed to call the electric company and say they cannot pay their bills.
Zhang said information about state programs funded through the CARES Act are difficult to access and there is very little information available about electric assistance programs.
She urged the groups and organizations to make information available to agencies like hers so they can help their clients.
An emergency order issued by Gov. Chris Sununu on March 17 established a moratorium on disconnections during the coronavirus pandemic, but 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 emergency declaration is still in effect.
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.
After the hearing, a technical session was held to discuss suggestions made at the public hearing.
PUC staff member Paul Dexter said they would discuss a third section for low-income electric customers with different policies and procedures.
And they would discuss outreach to affected customers as well as a working group as a mechanism for making changes to the agreement as needed.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.