More than 93,000 Wisconsin households could lose electricity, gas or water service next month if regulators allow a yearlong moratorium on utility shut-offs to expire, though recent federal aid packages could provide some relief.
Data collected by the Public Service Commission show that as of Feb. 15, as many as 121,633 households met the criteria for disconnection, which in most cases means they were at least 60 days past due.
Utilities reported that 93,263 households and 4,810 businesses would be subject to disconnection in April if they don’t enter into payment plans, though the utilities noted they may not have the staff to shut off all those accounts. Nearly 21,230 of those households are at risk of losing water service.
According to the PSC, more than 48,000 households fell behind on their bills since Nov. 1, the start of Wisconsin’s statutory winter disconnection moratorium, which is set to expire April 15.
The 346 utilities that responded to a PSC survey reported past-due balances of more than $309 million at the end of 2020, an increase of 58% over the previous year.
The commission is scheduled to discuss whether to extend the moratorium on Thursday.
Congress has approved more than $65 billion for rent and utility assistance since the start of the pandemic, but so far just $4.6 billion of those funds have been released.
Cassandra Lovejoy, policy director for the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, said she is more hopeful than she has been since the start of the pandemic, and she expects the Biden administration will move quickly to release the additional funding, particularly for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.
“Now that we know how much energy assistance money is coming, states can start to plan how to best use the funds to serve households in need,” Lovejoy said. “The water, rental and homeowners assistance funds are all new programs that take a little more time to set up.”
It has been nearly 17 months since Wisconsin utilities were allowed to disconnect customers for nonpayment. The PSC imposed a shut-off ban after Gov. Tony Evers authorized emergency action on March 23 and later extended it until the winter moratorium, with the majority arguing it was necessary to protect public health during the pandemic.
The Citizens Utility Board has asked the commission to extend the moratorium, affording residential and small business customers access to essential services while they work to pay down their bills.
The Wisconsin Utilities Association, which represents investor-owned gas and electric utilities, is calling for the moratorium to be lifted, noting the number of new COVID-19 cases has been falling and unemployment was at 4% in December, down significantly from the nearly 15% jobless rate during the statewide lockdown in April.
Municipal utilities argue that extending the moratorium will allow customers to fall even further behind.
“For municipal utilities, disconnection is always a last resort, but it remains a necessary tool to encourage customers to work with us to address their unpaid balances,” said Tim Heinrich, executive director of the Municipal Electric Utilities of Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is one of 27 states with shut-off moratoriums scheduled to expire between now and June, according to NEADA. Only New York, Virginia and the District of Columbia have indefinite COVID moratoriums in place.
Gov. Evers last month announced more than $322 million in funding for the Wisconsin Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which provides direct financial aid for rent, utility, home energy costs and other services. Another $16.4 million is available through the city of Madison and Dane County.
To qualify, individuals must demonstrate a risk of housing instability, have seen their income reduced by the COVID-19 pandemic and have household income at or below 80% of the county median income, which works out to $5,888 a month for a family of three in Dane County.
According to data from the Department of Administration, 258,214 households applied for energy assistance over the past 12 months, an increase of 17% compared to the previous year. The state provided more than $125.8 million in aid to nearly 219,800 of those households.
With more federal funding on the way, Lovejoy said utilities may be less likely to shut off customers, which is an added expense for the utility. But she said people need to know that help is available.
“Millions of families whose incomes were affected by the pandemic are eligible for LIHEAP for the first time in their lives,” Lovejoy said. “They may not even know the program exists. No family struggling to pay their bills should have their power turned off, especially when LIHEAP can help.”
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