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New Jersey opens hearings on unpaid utility bills as amounts continue to rise

DW Keefer's picture
Journalist Independent Journalist and Analyst

DW Keefer is a Denver-based energy journalist who writes extensively for national and international publications on all forms of electric power generation, utility regulation, business models...

  • Member since 2017
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  • Feb 9, 2021
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Utility customers in New Jersey owe as much as $600 million in unpaid gas and electric bills due to the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to a call for the state to extend a utility shutoff moratorium while a customer assistance program is developed.

The state Board of Public Utilities held an initial stakeholder meeting on the issue February 8. The BPU scheduled a total of three virtual public meetings on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on utility bill arrearages. Last October, Governor Phil Murphy extended the moratorium on residential utility shutoffs for electric, gas, and both public and private water utility service through March 15. The series of meetings are intended to allow the Board to receive input from both stakeholders and utility customers on the volume of outstanding utility bills, whether existing assistance programs are sufficient, and potential ways to address the arrearages.

Rate Counsel Director Stefanie Brand was quoted in local news reports as saying the numbers are “quite significant,’’ possibly as high as $600 million. Last August, the regulatory body projected that utility past-due accounts totaled more than $440 million.

Brand reportedly called for an extension of the moratorium on utility shutoffs. Her office initiated the proceeding to figure out how to deal with the problem. In order to also cover customers who don’t meet income thresholds.

At Public Service Electric & Gas, at least, more than three quarters of the residential accounts that are more than 90 days behind in paying their bills are not low-income customers.

Brand and other consumer advocates called for a forgiveness program but acknowledged that details would need to be worked out to determine exactly how to pay for such an approach.

“The numbers are looking so big that all sides are going to have to contribute to this problem,’’ Brand was quoted as saying. All sides could include utilities, their shareholders, customers, and any funds that may be available through federal Covid-19 relief programs.

The federal government earlier awarded $23 million in relief funding, according to one official with the state Department of Community Affairs. Distributing the money has proven difficult because the department received 8,500 incomplete applications. On other cases, potentially eligible New Jersey residents are not aware of the program.

An official with Jersey Central Power & Light said that more than two dozen other utilities, including some in neighboring states, had extended moratoriums on shutoffs that now have expired without significant problems.

BPU staff expects to form a number of working groups, probably next week, to deal with issues related to the problem. It has not announced a time frame for making a decision.

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