PUC to end temporary moratorium on utility disconnections Oct 15

Vermont Business Magazine The Vermont Public Utility Commission announced Thursday that the temporary moratorium on utility service disconnections will end on October 15, 2020. The PUC is also ordering new, mandatory consumer protections for utility customers who are facing economic hardships as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month, the Department and several utilities informed the Commission that many utility customers were not taking advantage of the VCAAP or responding to utility outreach to address their past-due balances.

For this reason, the Department and these utilities encouraged the Commission to end the moratorium so that customers would work with their utilities and take advantage of the time-limited VCAAP funds and other resources that can help consumers.

The Commission, in response to these requests, is lifting the moratorium as of October 15, 2020.

On March 18, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission granted a temporary moratorium on involuntary utility service disconnections in Vermont.

Over the course of the next several months, the Commission extended and expanded the protections in its March moratorium so that Vermonters did not lose essential services during this time.

On August 18, 2020, the Vermont Department of Public Service began its Vermont COVID-19 Arrearage Assistance Program.

VCAAP provides federally funded financial support to residential and non-residential customers of regulated utilities with past-due balances.

Through VCAAP, the Department intends to distribute up to $8 million until funding runs out. It is hoped that these funds will minimize or even eliminate past-due balances incurred by residential and business customers who have been unable to pay their bills due to impacts from COVID-19, but if those customers do not apply for assistance, the VCAAP funds will expire this December.

It is very important for utility customers who have past-due balances to visit the following website as soon as possible for details on the VCAAP and how to apply: CLICK HERE.

To help prevent harm to consumers affected by COVID-19 after the moratorium is lifted, the Commission will also be implementing emergency rules that provide new, mandatory protections for consumers who need assistance with addressing their past-due balances at this time.

These new protections will include specific requirements that utilities must follow in seeking disconnections, such as required notices to consumers regarding the availability of VCAAP assistance.

Utilities will also be required to provide long-term repayment plans so that consumers have at least 12 months to address any outstanding bills.

Green Mountain Power will continue its self-imposed moratorium at least until the end of the year.

"GMP is focused on working with customers through this unprecedented time," Kristin Kelly told VBM. "That is why GMP made the decision weeks ago to suspend disconnections at least through the end of 2020 and we will revisit it after that to see if it should be continued. We first suspended disconnects early in March, before any state requirements, to support customers facing challenges from the pandemic.

"We continue to do extensive outreach about the state’s COVID-19 Arrearage Assistance Program – phone calls and letters to eligible customers, so people know help is available."

Beth Parent, Corporate Communications Manager at Vermont Gas Systems, sent this statement to VBM: "Safety and affordability are foundational values at VGS. We realize that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused economic hardship for too many of our customers, which is why we fully supported a moratorium on any disconnections for the past few months. Now that the PUC has announced the moratorium will end on Oct. 15, our energy experts are even more committed to working with our customers on convenient repayment options that will fit their budget needs. Over the past number of weeks, VGS has been proactively implementing 12 month repayment arrangements for impacted customers. We will continue to work with our customers well beyond the moratorium with repayment plans designed to allow sufficient time to recover on bills while avoiding disconnections. We will continue to waive late fees for the remainder of the year."

"We are also actively promoting the funds available through the VCAAP, Vermont COVID-19 Arrearage Assistance Program, on our website, social media and direct customer mailers to make sure our customers know there are programs out there to help during these unprecedented times. We are here to help customers stay safe, warm and comfortable all year long."

Andrea Cohen at Vermont Electric Cooperative told VBM, "We have and will continue to work with members to direct them to the state arrearage assistance program and to set up payment arrangements that are manageable. (If someone is in an agreed upon payment arrangement there is no threat of disconnection).

"We have an extensive outreach plan that includes broad information distribution and direct contact with VEC members (inserts into arrearage notices, personal calls, door knockers with information, etc).

"We are allowing for payment arrangements to extend for a much longer period of time than usual (1 year), and waiving many of the usual fees for a period of time (notice fees, trip fees, etc.). Our goal is to support individual members the best we can while we also ensure the financial well being of the co-op as a whole."

PUC’s Order and all other documents from this proceeding can be found by searching for Case Number 20-0703-INV in ePUC (epuc.vermont.gov).

Montpelier, VT, October 8, 2020 – Vermont Public Utility Commission