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OUC urged not to disconnect utility customers under pandemic’s financial stress

Source: 
Orlando Sentinel

An alliance of 52 civic, social-justice and other groups is calling on Orlando’s mayor and utility to take stock of the region’s financial distress from the pandemic and to delay a planned restart Tuesday of disconnecting customers for nonpayment.

The alliance noted that Orlando Utilities Commission is offering payment-assistance plans but that disconnecting residents can “leave already financially burdened families facing late fees, reconnection fees, and other hidden costs that intensify financial hardships.”

“The COVID-19 crisis has increased exponentially throughout the state and within the Orlando metropolitan area,” the alliance stated in a letter to Mayor Buddy Dyer. “The unprecedented spike (9,000 new cases in a single day) is adding more distress to our working communities that are more susceptible to the health and economic impacts of the pandemic.”

OUC operates separately from city government but is municipally owned and includes Orlando’s mayor on its five-member governing board.

In March as economic conditions rapidly deteriorated, OUC and utilities across the nation announced suspensions of disconnections for nonpayment of bills.

The reinstatement of disconnecting customers has been uneven among utilities, including in Central Florida.

The city of Winter Park’s utility service, which provides power and water, suspended disconnections March 16 and will reinstate them Monday. City officials did not respond immediately to a request for the number of customers potentially spared from having their service cut off.

KUA, providing electricity to about 80,000 customers in the Kissimmee area, suspended disconnections on March 14 and resumed them on June 22. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, 17,672 customers have fallen behind in bills by a combined $4 million, according to the utility.

But Duke Energy, the region’s largest provider of electricity has not set a date for reinstating disconnections of customers behind in their bills.

“Duke Energy encourages customers to pay what they can to avoid building up a large balance that will be harder to pay off later,” said spokeswoman Ana Gibbs. The utility is directing customers who are struggling with their bills to Duke’s “Energy Neighborhood Fund.”

Florida Power & Light Co., the state’s largest electric utility with more than 5 million customers, also has not reinstated disconnections, and the investor-owned company is urging customers to apply for a variety of assistance options.

OUC’s spokesman Tim Trudell said of the utility’s 240,000 customers, about 25,000 are behind by an average of about $350 in payments. About 15,000 of those are far enough behind they would have been eligible for disconnection prior to the pandemic, he said.

Trudell said the reinstating of disconnections will be done gradually while the utility encourages customers to tap into assistance programs available through OUC’s website at OUC.com/assistance

“We will find a solution for them,” Trudell said. “All they need to do is tell us they need help.”

OUC customer Elizabeth De Leon said she has fallen nearly $900 behind in water and electricity billing because she lost her job in May and then became sick with COVID-19.

What worries her most about having her power disconnected is her 17-year-old diabetic son, whose insulin supply must be refrigerated, De Leon said.

The diverse alliance, organized by Central Florida Jobs With Justice, includes neighborhood groups and local chapters of the League of Women Voters, Sierra Club and NAACP, and Poder Latinx, Islamic Center of Orlando, Organize Florida, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1596 and the Orange Classroom Teachers Association.

“As a municipal utility, OUC operates as a public entity accountable to the people of Orlando and as such, should be more responsive to the needs of its ratepayers,” said the alliance in its letter to Dyer, which urges him to delay the restart of disconnections at least until early fall.

Asked for comment, Dyer’s office responded that customers should avail themselves to assistance.

“Individuals and business should make those arrangements as soon as possible by contacting OUC directly and prevent any disruption or disconnection in service,” Dyer’s office stated.

kspear@orlandosentinel.com

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(c)2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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