Utility customers owe millions in unpaid bills, so NJ expands assistance

TOM JOHNSON, ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT WRITER | JUNE 25, 2021

NJ Spotlight News

The state is expanding energy assistance programs to a broader range of the public, a step that could help thousands of customers who were unable to pay gas or electric bills during the coronavirus pandemic.

In its bimonthly meeting Thursday, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities announced temporary changes to its Universal Service Fund program, a program that provides monthly credits to low-income households to help pay utility bills. The changes will allow middle-income households to tap into the program for two years.

Many details about the changes were left unanswered, including how many more households would be covered by the expansion, how much it would cost, and where the additional funds to provide relief to customers would come from.

“It’s a good start in solving this problem,’’ said Stefanie Brand, director of the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel. “It creates a path for people to get out from these difficulties.

The details will be worked out in coming weeks, Brand said. Where federal relief funds are allocated is still an open question, as is how many customers behind on their bills begin paying past balances as the economy recovers. And how much the state might allocate is a factor as well.

‘We have a great deal of empathy’

In the current budget year, the state expects $211 million will be expended by the USF program, reaching 271,846 households, according to information provided by BPU to the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services earlier this year.

As of May 15, more than 730,000 residential customers were at least one month behind on their utility bills, according to the BPU, owing over $500 million to their respective utilities.

“We have a great deal of empathy for those who have been unable to pay their bills due to financial hardships brought on by the pandemic,’’ said BPU President Joseph Fiordaliso. “While the state begins its recovery, we felt it was prudent to expand the USF and Fresh Start (a component of the USF program that provides debt forgiveness for past due balances) to help families as they get back on their feet.’’

The changes will go into effect on Oct. 1 and will expire on the same date in 2023. Probably the most significant revision by the board was to increase income limits from 185% of the Federal Poverty Level to 400% so that more customers will become eligible for benefits.

Higher income limits

For a family of four, the existing qualifying income limit is approximately $48,000 annually. By raising the limit, the new threshold is $104,000.

“It’s good news. What this means is more New Jersey households will have access to these energy assistance programs,’’ said Ev Liebman, associate director of AARP New Jersey. “More families will be able to pay their bills and participate in the economic recovery.’’

Under the Fresh Start program, if the customer pays current charges on monthly utility bills, in full for one year, prior overdue balances are eliminated.

In addition, the BPU ordered USF enrollees with an overdue balance of $60 or more be enrolled in the Fresh Start program. For each month Fresh Start customers pay their current utility bill, 1/12th of their outstanding balances will be forgiven.

Under the USF program, the board increased the cap on the benefit a customer could receive from $150 to $180 a month. The board also lowered the energy affordability threshold from 3% of household income to 2% of income for gas bills and dropped the threshold for electric bills to 4% of household income from 6%.

Earlier this month, Gov. Phil Murphy announced a moratorium on utility shut-offs would end June 30, but blunted the effect by creating a six-month grace period for customers to catch up on their bills.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-06-25 03:17:29 -0700