(Sept. 4, 2020) Maryland residents will have an extra two months to pay off their utility bills, following a decision by the Maryland Public Service Commission to prohibit utility companies from terminating services through Nov. 15.
The commission’s decision, which was declared an emergency action, extends Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order prohibiting terminations and late fees that expired Tuesday.
The ruling does not extend the governor’s orders for services outside of the commission’s purview, such as internet and state water and sewer services.
“The commission’s goal is to help those customers struggling with household expenses during this difficult time and to ensure that their utility services remain connected,” said Jason M. Stanek, Chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission, in a statement. “It is important that customers behind on their utility bills not wait for a turn-off notice or, when they receive one, to contact their utility right away and work with them to discuss payment plans and bill assistance programs that are available to help them.”
The commission held three days of hearings, last Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, to hear from electric and gas utilities in the state on their responses to a series of questions posed by the commission.
“The questions seek to probe the impacts that stay-at-home orders and the prohibition on shutoffs have had on energy usage, utility operations, reliability, and revenue,” a commission press release said. “Of particular interest to the commission are the policies and procedures the utilities have developed to handle increasing numbers of customers who are unable to pay utility bills and who may face disconnection of service when the moratorium is lifted.”
Tamla Olivier, Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE) senior vice president of Customer Operations and chief customer officer, testified last Tuesday that customers were sinking further into debt and that the company was concerned of their ability to make a comeback.
From mid-March to July, the number of customers with arrearages, or debt, increased by roughly 20 percent.
The dollar amount of debt has nearly doubled, Olivier said, from a total of $41.2 million to $78.3 million.
Olivier said this discrepancy in total number of customers and total amount of debt is concerning because it means the debt was not spread out, but is accumulating per customer.
From July 20 to Dec. 20, the number of residents with debt is projected to increase by another 37 percent, while the total amount of debt would increase by 151 percent, from $78.6 million to $197.3 million.
BGE had taken several pre-moratorium and post-moratorium steps to reduce the burden on its customers, Olivier said, such as reduced payment plans.
The issue, however, was that customers were not seeking assistance, despite outreach efforts by the company.
“We did 200,000 target communications to those who we believe to be eligible for OHEP (Office of Home Energy Programs), and of those 200,000 customers only 1,000 have applied for and received grants,” Olivier said.
Communications to customers have been ongoing since June, she said, so customers were aware of where they stood with the company.
She said one trend that might explain why so few have sought help is because many are waiting on Hogan to either extend or end the moratorium, with call volumes topping at the end of each month.
She did say, however, that 80 percent of customers paid after receiving a turn off notice from the company.
“We are in a tough spot and we want to be able to partner with our customers [and] come up with solutions that allow them to come up with effective solutions to their arrearages,” Olivier said. “And we understand that once the moratorium ends, we are not going back to normal business. That is just not feasible, it does not make sense and it certainly does not allow us to effectively support our customers.”
The commission spent the next three days listening and questioning utility companies, ultimately opting to extend the prohibition.
“The commission is holding utilities responsible for proactive outreach to their customers to let them know about utility, state and community resources that are available to assist customers who are unable to pay their bills due to ongoing covid-19 pandemic and to keep customers ins service if they enter into a payment arrangement,” Stanek said in a statement.
Under the ruling, utilities may not begin sending termination notices until Oct. 1, a 45-day notice compared to the previous 14-day notice; customers in debt would have 45 days to work out a payment plan with their utility company or apply for energy assistance programs.
Customers who take either action would not have service disconnected. Utilities must offer a minimum payment plan of 12 months, unless customers are receiving energy assistance from the Office of Home Energy Programs. In addition, utilities cannot require a down payment or deposit as a condition of beginning a payment plan for any residential customer, both new or current.
Commissioner Obi Linton urged other utility companies to establish similar transition plans.
“I encourage those utility-related companies, such as Xfinity and Verizon, and our state water and sewer agencies to consider announcing and establishing similar transition plans for their customers if they had not done so already,” Linton said.