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

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

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

From March 2020 to March 2022, the number of overdue customers increased in all but two utilities and the amount owed increased in every utility, according to the report.

Much of that debt is being erased as more than half a billion dollars worth of bill credit is being given to low-income New Yorkers who are behind in their payments, likely here on August 1st.

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

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

A state-imposed moratorium on service cuts for nonpayment expired late last year, exposing more people to having their utilities terminated if they fall into arrears again.

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

HELP PROGRAM

Governor Kathy Hochul last month announced $567 million in assistance for low-income families with backlogs accumulating through May 1, 2022.

“It is unacceptable that far too many New Yorkers are at risk of having their lights turned off for non-payment of their utility bills due to financial issues caused by the pandemic,” she said on June 16.

This is an automatic discount applied to the bills of those who are enrolled in the Energy Accessibility Program or who enroll before December 31 – they do not need to claim the bill credit or enroll . An estimated 327,000 New York households will benefit.

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

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

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

The Energy Accessibility Policy Task Force hosted by the State Public Service Commission will meet on Tuesday for its first discussion on managing COVID-related arrears owed by high-income New York City utility customers. York.

UTILITY EFFORTS

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

The utility with the most customers and which operates in one of the most expensive areas of the state – Consolidated Edison, in New York – also had the most overdue residential customers and the most combined amount. high late: 392,587 households owed $848.7. million overdue utility bills.

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

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

Utilities in New York are regulated by the State Civil Service Commission, which tightly controls their operations and charges for the delivery of natural gas and electricity. But the cost of gas and electricity itself is unregulated and has been very high in recent months.

Given that other household expenses are also rising sharply and the upstate heating season may be three months away, it seems likely that overdue utility bills will begin to pile up again after this one-time COVID-related assistance will have reduced the backlog.

National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella said arrears are not a problem limited to low-income families who will benefit from the aid announced last month – two-thirds of those in arrears with Grid are earning too many to be eligible for this aid.

For this reason, the utility uses the term “income-eligible” rather than “low-income.” As with HEAP, the threshold is 60% of state median income. The actual limits for the 2021-22 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 power and gas outages was lifted on December 21, 2021, but there has not been a sharp increase in outages afterward – state regulations prohibit cuts for non-payment any day between November 1 and April 15 when the temperature is forecast to drop below freezing.

National Grid goes one step further and generally does not cut arrears in winter, even in warm weather.

However, spokesman Patrick Stella said he had resumed backlog closings this spring for high-income customers – around 2,700 in May alone. Closures for income-eligible customers are suspended until at least September 1, following the bill credit program Hochul announced last month.

The utility has a long history of consumer education efforts to avoid shutdowns, Stella said, and with new assistance programs created in the past two years, it has more ways to help.

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

Sherry Higgins, head of the customer advocacy group for National Grid in New York state, said help is available even for customers who don’t heat with electricity or gas provided by Grid.

If their oil furnace needs electricity to operate and they meet the income threshold, they can pay for that electricity.

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

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

Sometimes the utility doesn’t even wait for them to call.

“We are proactively reaching,” she said. “My team schedules HEAP calls to customers we deem HEAP eligible.”

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

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