The covid state of emergency might be officially over and winter might be a several months away, but the crisis facing more than a million New Yorkers with regard to keeping the power on in their homes hasn’t subsided.
The state needs to make sure that people who could not keep up with their bills during the economic shutdown — including low-income and elderly property owners — get the help they need to get by.
Right now, about 1.2 million residential energy customers in New York owe more than $1.5 billion in overdue utility bills — an average of $1,250 per household.
The overdue bills include services like electric, gas, water, internet and telephone.
On Tuesday, two consumer protection organizations — AARP New York and the Public Utility Law Project — filed an emergency petition with the state Public Service Commission that would help resolve the dire situation faced by those who are behind on their bills and would address the state’s high utility rates.
The petitions urge immediate action in three areas.
The first asks the PSC to prohibit utilities from terminating service for non-payment until the commission addresses the inconsistent processes for customers to self-certify a change in their financial status.
Customers need to self-certify in order to claim a hardship in paying their bills on time. With a hardship, customers are entitled to request an additional six months of protection from shut-offs.
The petition also asks the PSC to adopt an AARP checklist for utilities to encourage customers to access federal and state assistance before entering a plan to defer payments.
This would make it easier for customers to apply for financial relief, potentially reduce their payments with the help of government assistance, and give them more time to catch up on their overdue payments.
Another action sought would require utilities to increase enrollment in low-income rate discount programs that cap customer payments at 6% of their incomes.
This would limit the financial burden of high utility bills on low-income individuals and seniors. Right now, according to the two groups, the state’s program for helping low-income New Yorkers is inadequate.
Finally, the petition asks the PSC to create an “arrears resolution process” that would ensure payment management plans and deferred payment agreements are fair and reasonable.
None of the solutions sought under the petition are unreasonable, nor would they punish utilities by depriving them of their legitimately due payments.
But they would go a long way toward helping those facing hardships due to the pandemic keep their power on and get caught up in their overdue bills.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo should immediately instruct the PSC to address the overdue billing crisis and reform the programs for low-income utility customers.