Schenectady

Help coming for some of the 1 in 8 New Yorkers behind on their utility bills

PHOTOGRAPHER:

ALBANY — The state comptroller last week provided an update on the growing number of New York households behind on their utility payments: One in eight residential customers have bills that are more than 60 days overdue, and the collective sum owed exceeds $1.8 billion.

The report puts new numbers on a situation that has existed for years: A significant number of New Yorkers were in arrears before COVID hit the state in 2020, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in the report released Thursday, and significantly more fell into arrears once the pandemic set in.

From March 2020 to March 2022, the number of customers in arrears grew at all but two utilities and the amount owed grew at every utility, the report said.

A big chunk of that debt is now being erased, as bill credits worth more than a half-billion dollars are extended to lower-income New Yorkers in arrears, probably by Aug 1.

But it is only a one-time solution and only for certain customers, a bailout at the expense of state taxpayers and the utility customers who pay their bills on time.

Rampant consumer inflation and high prices for natural gas and electricity suggest arrears will continue to be a problem.

A state-imposed moratorium on service cutoffs for non-payment expired late last year, exposing more people to terminations of their utilities if they fall into arrears again.

“Failure to pay these bills may result in service shutoffs, which increases economic stress on families and can damage local economies by reducing household spending, leading to job losses,” DiNapoli said in a statement accompanying the report.

ASSISTANCE PROGRAM

Gov. Kathy Hochul last month announced $567 million in assistance for low-income families with overdue bills charges accrued through May 1, 2022.

“It’s unacceptable that far too many New Yorkers are at risk of having their lights shut off for failure to pay their utility bills due to financial problems caused by the pandemic,” she said June 16.

It’s an automatic reduction applied to the bills of those who are enrolled in the Energy Affordability Program, or who enroll by Dec. 31 — they need not apply for the bill credit or opt in. An estimated 327,000 New York households will benefit.

The money to help them will come from state taxpayers ($350 million), from the utilities themselves ($36 million), and from utility customers, in the form of a surcharge on their bills ($181 million).

The surcharge is capped at 0.5% — $1 on a $200 bill — and will start in August.

Help is also being considered for the New Yorkers who are in arrears but whose income is too high to qualify for this round of bill credits.

The Energy Affordability Policy working group organized by the state Public Service Commission will meet Tuesday for its first discussion on managing COVID-related arrears owed by higher-income customers of New York utilities.

UTILITY EFFORTS

DiNapoli’s report is a snapshot taken near the end of the winter heating season: March 2022.

The utility that has the most customers and that operates in one of the most expensive region of the state — Consolidated Edison, in New York City — also had the most residential customers in arrears, and the highest combined sum in arrears: 392,587 households owed $848.7 million in overdue utility bills.

The second-largest New York utility, National Grid Upstate, had the second-highest number of residential customers in arrears and the second-highest combined value of arrears, DiNapoli reported.

In the most recent period reported, May 2022, 241,188 National Grid Upstate residential customers were more than 60 days behind on a combined $379.9 million worth of charges. That’s 16% of the utility’s residential customers.

Utilities in New York are regulated by the state Public Service Commission, which closely controls their operations and their charges for delivering natural gas and electricity. But the cost of the gas and electricity itself is not regulated, and has been very high in some recent months.

Given that other household expenses are also rising sharply, and given that the upstate heating season is perhaps three months away, it seems likely that overdue utility bills will start to accrue again after this one-time COVID-related assistance slashes the backlog.

National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella said arrears are not a problem limited to the low-income families that will benefit from the assistance announced last month — two-thirds of those in arrears with Grid make too much to be eligible for that assistance.

For that reason, the utility uses the term “income-eligible” rather than “low-income.” As with the HEAP program, the cutoff point is 60% of state median income. Actual limits for the 2021-2022 season were $3,569 maximum gross monthly income for a family of two and $5,259 for a family of four.

The state’s COVID-related moratorium on electric and gas shutoffs was lifted Dec. 21, 2021, but there was no great surge in shutoffs afterward — state regulations prohibit shutoffs for nonpayment on any day between Nov. 1 and April 15 that the temperature is forecast to drop below freezing.

National Grid goes a step further, and typically doesn’t do arrears shutoffs in winter, even on warm days.

However, spokesman Patrick Stella said, it did resume arrears shutoffs this spring for higher-income customers — about 2,700 in May alone. Shutoffs for income-eligible customers are on hold at least until Sept. 1, in the wake of the bill credit program Hochul announced last month.

The utility has long done consumer outreach efforts to avert shutoffs, Stella said, and with the new assistance programs created in the last two years, it has more ways to help.

“There are more options available to customers than there have been in many years,” he said.

Sherry Higgins, customer advocate group manager for National Grid in New York state, said help is available even for customers who don’t heat with the electricity or gas that Grid delivers.

If their oil-burning furnace needs electricity to operate, and they meet the income threshold, they can get paying for that electricity.

The key is to not let trouble paying bills snowball into a crisis.

“If the customer feels they’re in trouble it’s important to call soon,” Higgins said. 

The utility sometimes doesn’t even wait for them to call.

“We do reach out proactively,” she said. “My team schedules HEAP calls to customers we deem are HEAP-eligible.”

The message from the state, from utilities and local government and social service agencies appears to be finding an audience, Higgins said: More people are applying for help.

Categories: Business, News

1 Comments
Ignatious P. Reilly July 17, 2022
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I wonder why people can’t afford their electric bill Mr. Biden. Could it be that your administration’s green (greed) agenda, which is utterly foolish, much like you, and less than useless, again much like you, has purposely forced the price of electricity (and fuel oil, gas, groceries, medical care) to beyond where the deplorables can pay for it? Will they now be reliant on DaddyMommy Government to dole out electricity as they see fit? Will ‘governor’ Horseteeth give out taxpayer dollars in yet another attempt to illegally buy votes, I mean ‘help’ the same people the state overtaxes in the first place? Do you think this could be true Mr. Biden – oh, sorry, – just go have some ice cream and be quiet. My golly, I am surprised this could happen in America the home of the “free”! The “greatest” country on earth!….at least it used to be.