Utility companies could soon send termination notices to Marylanders who are behind on their bills, as a months-long moratorium on shut-offs comes to an end.
A state prohibition on residential disconnections began in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic. A moratorium remains in place for water, gas and electric service turn-offs until Nov. 15, but notices can begin going out Oct. 1.
Consumer advocates, state officials and utility companies all have the same message: Reach out now if you need help.
They said people should contact their utilities and apply for assistance as soon as possible.
Under a ruling by the state’s Public Service Commission, residents will have 45 days to address unpaid bills with their utility company once they receive a termination notice. They will not have their service disconnected if they work out a payment plan or apply for energy assistance.
More than $150 million has been set aside for energy assistance in Maryland, but many people who need help have not applied.
"The bottom line is we want to ensure that people keep their electricity — and as we’re entering into a colder season, that their heat says on,” said Maryland People’s Counsel Paula M. Carmody, whose office represents consumers and had pushed for a longer moratorium.
The PSC’s move extended the moratorium that Republican Gov. Larry Hogan put in place earlier this year amid mounting job losses. The ruling also requires utilities to offer a minimum payment plan of 12 months, or 24 months for people receiving energy assistance. The companies cannot require a down payment or deposit as a condition of beginning a payment plan.
At a recent committee meeting, state lawmakers expressed concerns about the timing of the moratorium’s end as the weather changes, and how people will manage if they earn too much to qualify for assistance, but still face income loss because of the pandemic.
Those behind on their bills include people who have long struggled, but also people who have never before had to ask for assistance and now find themselves in financial trouble because of the pandemic, observers say.
Unpaid bills have piled up during the pandemic.
For gas and electric utilities, customers owe about $300 million, PSC Chairman Jason Stanek told lawmakers last week.
“I would describe the magnitude of the situation as immense,” Stanek said in an interview. “It’s important for any customer that needs assistance … to reach out immediately.”
It is hard to say how many people around the state could receive shut-off notices. They will not go out all at once, PSC spokeswoman Tori Leonard said. Each utility has its own methodology so they will be staggered according to the utility’s billing system.
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is set to launch a public awareness campaign Monday to urge customers to ask for help.
"There is a lot going on and we know customers have a lot on their plates,” said Tamla Olivier, senior vice president and chief customer officer at BGE. “And we want to be in a position to take some of that stress and some of those things off their plates, we just need them to make the phone call.”
Between mid-March and the end of July, the number of residential customers more than 30 days past due on their bills jumped from about 125,000 to 160,000, Olivier said.
But the number of households isn’t climbing as quickly as the total amount BGE is owed. That amount nearly doubled during that time period — from $40 million to $78 million.
That means some customers are “sinking further into debt, and that has been a pretty troubling trend,” Olivier said.
At the same time, BGE got little response to outreach efforts, such as sending hundreds of thousands of postcards, emails and letters to people eligible for energy assistance to let them know what options were available, Olivier said.
Utility companies, which urged an end to the moratorium, say customers haven’t been motivated to pay their bills because they knew they wouldn’t incur late fees or have their service shut off. Advocates say that during the pandemic, people have faced difficult choices about which bills to pay and barriers to applying for assistance.
Lydia C. Watts directs the Rebuild, Overcome, and Rise (ROAR) Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, which serves survivors of crime and their families. She said she is seeing people with “staggering” amounts owed, into the thousands of dollars.
For people who have lost their incomes in the pandemic and were already in a precarious position, utility bills "have fallen to the bottom of the list” because they needed to pay for other essentials, such as food, Watts said.
ROAR staff said people had trouble applying for energy assistance when offices that took applications closed in the pandemic. Although people can apply online, many who need the aid lack computers and internet access, they said.
The PSC does not regulate municipal water systems. But the city of Baltimore, which provides water for city and Baltimore County residents, has seen a marked increase in unpaid bills, too.
The amount of uncollected charges for all accounts rose nearly 16% between March and September, totaling $194 million by Sept. 15, according to the city’s Department of Public Works.
The city is not turning off water due to unpaid bills, DPW officials said. Water bill assistance is available through the BH20 program.
During the pandemic, people receiving unemployment automatically qualify for water-bill aid with proper documentation, DPW spokeswoman Jennifer Combs said.
As for energy assistance, funding for the state’s Office of Home Energy Programs totals more than $150 million, including more than $19 million in CARES Act funds.
Statewide applications for energy assistance from the office were down in July and August compared to those months last year, but started ticking back up in September, said Bill Freeman, who heads the home energy office.
His office is preparing for a significant increase in applications, though he doesn’t know how big a surge it might see.
“The big question mark is how many will be able to pay come Oct. 1,” Freeman said.
Twenty-two states and Washington, D.C., have active moratoriums on utility shut-offs in response to the pandemic — though as in Maryland, some are set to expire soon, according to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Another 13 states' moratoriums already have ended.