‘Shut-off notices are going to go out’

TOM JOHNSON, ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT WRITER | FEBRUARY 22, 2022 

NJ Spotlight News

With less than a month before a moratorium on utility shut-offs ends, more than a million customers are still behind on paying their gas and electric bills, owing a total of $821 million.

The moratorium ends March 15, and unlike in the past, it is not expected to be extended. “I think this is it. There are not going to be any extensions,’’ said Joseph Fiordaliso, New Jersey Board of Public Utilities president. “Come March 15, shut-off notices are going to go out.’’

Since the pandemic began in the spring of 2020, hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost as businesses closed after COVID-19 restrictions were put in place. The number of people falling behind on their gas and electric bills swelled and has continued to grow.

“The problem hasn’t disappeared,’’ said Evelyn Liebman, associate director for AARP New Jersey. “It really reflects the effect of COVID-19 and the economic devastation it has caused.’’

‘It’s puzzling’ that so few have sought help

As New Jersey is about to enter a third year of coping with this pandemic, a very troubling aspect for its utilities is how few customers have contacted them or state agencies to get help, particularly as state and federal dollars have significantly expanded the pot of money available in energy-assistance programs to those who fall behind on their bills.

Only $10 million out of a $250 million allocation set aside by the Murphy administration to help utility customers deal with unpaid bills has been spent so far, according to Bob Brabston, BPU’s executive director. Why so few people have sought assistance stumps officials.

“It’s puzzling,’’ acknowledged Fiordaliso, who speculated people are waiting until the last minute to address the problem.

Less than 10% of their customers now in arrears on their bills have contacted Public Service Electric & Gas, according to a spokesman. The company has 275,000 customers more than 90 days late on their bills. Those customers are at the greatest risk of losing service come March 15, said Rebecca Mazzarella, a spokeswoman.

Apparently, PSE&G is not alone. “My understanding is all of the utilities are having that problem,’’ said Brian Lipman, director of the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, which represents the interests of ratepayers. “It is definitely a big problem.’’

How big? More than 400,000 residential customers are between five and six months behind on their gas and electric bills, according to the latest information compiled by the BPU. Lipman argues those customers typically face other bills after falling behind on utility payments, including rent, car, and water and sewer bills.

Utility bill assistance

There are programs that can ease customers’ predicaments, including monthly payments to help those who are behind on their bills pay down what they owe. It helped Ahmiere Mincy get out of a financial hole.

Mincy, who lives in Newark, lost his job as a clinical supervisor in March 2021. He quickly applied for unemployment but did not start receiving a check until the summer. “It was a tough five months,’’ he said. “Everything kept going up and nothing went down.’’ Mincy ended up owing $1,900 on his PSE&G bill.

He went to a PSE&G service center and found the help he needed. He qualified for $30 a month to help pay his electric bill down and $5 monthly for his gas bill from the state’s Universal Service Fund. Eligible customers pay no more than 2% of their gas bills and 2% of their electric bills under the program. In addition, Mincy received a one-time $360 grant from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

The state’s Fresh Start program also provides help to customers in arrears. Under that program, customers who agree to pay their utility bill for one year can see the balance of their arrears wiped out. “It is one of the best programs in the country,’’ Liebman said.

Even if you do not qualify for such assistance, those in arrears should contact their utility, which will try to set up a payment program that the customer can afford, Fiordaliso said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-02-22 03:01:58 -0800