A week after the utility restored power to its 285,000 customers in Northwest Florida, Gulf Power has joined other Florida utilities to fight a proposal before the Florida Public Service Commission that would prevent disconnections for customers who can’t pay their bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CARES Act housing assistance grant that Escambia County Commission authorized in August to help renters pay their past due utility bills, but County Administrator Janice Gilley and her team have yet to send out a check – the county closed the application period on Friday, Sept. 4.
Since April, FloridaWest CEO Scott Luth has pushed to use CARES Act monies to assist small businesses and families. When Inweekly worked on its COVID-19 Ballsy Plan in July, Luth came up with a innovative idea – negotiate with utilities to discount their bills.
With the CARES Act helping businesses and residents pay their utility bills, Luth felt the county should go to the utilities and ask them to discount their outstanding bills. He explained, “If the government is providing the money, we should ask utilities to help.”
Instead, no CARES Act checks have been written for Escambia families as we reach the seven-month mark since the COVID-19 emergency was declared. Escambia County didn’t open its family assistance portal until Friday, Sept. 24. FEMA individual assistance has been caught up in red tape.
And now Gulf Power wants to start disconnecting customers.
UTILITIES OBJECT TO HALT IN DISCONNECTIONS
September 29, 2020
By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Arguing that turning off customers’ electricity is a “last resort,” four major utilities said Tuesday that a proposal to place at least a 90-day moratorium on disconnections because of the COVID-19 pandemic is unnecessary.
Florida Power & Light, Gulf Power, Duke Energy Florida and Tampa Electric Co. filed documents at the state Public Service Commission pushing back against a proposed emergency rule change that would halt disconnections for customers who can’t pay their bills. The Earthjustice legal organization filed the proposal last week on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Florida and two utility customers.
The utilities pointed Tuesday to a series of efforts they have made to help customers who have struggled as the pandemic has caused widespread job losses and financial troubles.
“In summary, the petitioners’ request for an emergency rule change does not acknowledge the substantial accommodations and extensive options that are already available to customers in need of financial assistance today,” attorneys for FPL and Gulf Power, which are sister companies, wrote in one of the filings. “In addition, the request fails to meet the high standard for the promulgation of an emergency rule (under state law). The proactive approach and the expansive set of initiatives instituted by the companies have provided unprecedented assistance to customers impacted by COVID-19 and mitigated excessive incremental bad debt due to COVID-19. Both FPL and Gulf reiterate that disconnecting power is the absolutely last resort, and the companies remain committed to working with their customers through these challenging times.”
Utilities suspended disconnections after the pandemic began in the spring but recently have moved forward with plans to turn off electricity for non-payment of bills. Duke and Tampa Electric have resumed disconnections, while FPL this month announced it would resume in October.
In addition to suspending disconnections during the early months of pandemic, the utilities said in the filings Tuesday that they have made efforts such as setting up payment plans for customers and linking customers with agencies that can provide assistance in paying bills.
“We fully recognize this has been, and continues to be, a time of hardship for many of our customers,” Duke Energy Florida State President Catherine Stempien wrote in one of the filings. “Our thoughts are with families who have lost loved ones and with those that have experienced economic loss. Because of our aggressive efforts on behalf of our customers, we believe the extraordinary relief the petitioners seek is not warranted at this time.”
But the petition filed Sept. 22 by Earthjustice lawyers asked the Public Service Commission to step in and block electricity shutoffs for at least 90 days. The petition, in part, linked the issue of electricity disconnections to evictions.
“Electricity is a necessity in Florida, not a luxury, given the extreme weather conditions we face in this state,” the petition said. “This is why cutting off electricity has long been recognized as a constructive eviction under Florida law. Given the necessity of keeping people socially distanced and housed, and recognizing the public health emergency, the (federal) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gov. Ron DeSantis have prohibited evictions due to the current crisis when renters and others are unable to make their payments and have nowhere else to go. Petitioners simply ask this (Public Service) Commission to give effect to these prohibitions by extending it to electricity cut offs for the duration of the crisis by using its explicit authority to protect the public welfare.”
A decision by the Public Service Commission to impose such a moratorium would be unusual, but the regulators were told at a July workshop that nearly 600,000 utility customers were behind on payments.
The petition contends that more than 1 million people could face disconnections, but Stempien took issue with that number, saying it “vastly over-estimates the current situation.” The Duke and Tampa Electric filings also indicated that most customers who receive disconnection notices do not have their power shut off or get it reconnected.
While seeking a moratorium on disconnections for people who can’t pay their bills, the petition does not propose debt forgiveness.
“Although it may seem punitive to some, resumption of disconnections has substantially increased the number of customers who are contacting the company, thereby enabling the company to work with customers to manage or eliminate past due balances,” Tampa Electric said in its filing. “The company is concerned that adopting the emergency rule would result in fewer customers calling for and receiving assistance and would actually result in more disconnections in the long run, not fewer.”