PSC halts plan to let power companies disconnect customers behind on their bills

    Power lines (photo from Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

    A month and a half after announcing it would let utility companies go back to cutting off service to people behind on their bills starting this weekend, the state Public Service Commission (PSC) voted 2-1 Thursday to reverse that decision.

    Instead, the PSC extended a moratorium on disconnections that was first imposed March 24 until at least Sept. 1. The commission stated it will consider other changes when it meets August 20.

    The moratorium on residential utility disconnections was implemented March 24, on the eve of the state Safer at Home order instituted by the administration of Gov. Tony Evers, aimed at reducing activity and gatherings to slow the spread of the virus responsible for COVID-19.

    On June 11, the PSC voted to lift the disconnection moratorium effective this Saturday, July 25, permitting utilities to issue disconnection notices to customers starting July 15. At the time, the commission said it was responding to the state’s reopening after the Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out an extension of the Safer at Home order, and that it was important to balance consumer protection and costs to all utility customers.

    “The data has shown that the coronavirus has ballooned since our decision on June 11,” said Rebecca Cameron Valcq, the PSC chair, in a statement. “We must press the pause button today on utility disconnections as the risk to public health is far greater today than it was a month ago, while the financial impact to utilities has been minimal.”

    As of Thursday, 71,000 utility customers in the state were at risk of being disconnected at the end of the moratorium, PSC staff reported.

    Consumer advocates and other groups applauded the PSC’s change of plan.

    “The health and economic impacts of COVID have been substantive, especially on communities of color, and to cut vital utilities during a hot summer when cooling, refrigeration and connectivity are all critical, would extend the disparate impacts we already see occurring,” said Don Ferber, chair of the Wisconsin Sierra Club, in a statement. “This is a great start towards responding to the inequities we have in our energy system and the need to provide affordable and just energy services.”

    The Citizens Utility Board, which advocates for utility consumers before the commission, commended the decision to postpone disconnections, while acknowledging in a statement that “there will be costs that come due at some point” because of the decision.

    “The commissioners made the right call, given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic,” said CUB Executive director Tom Content.  “They clearly didn’t want to take a risk of allowing shutoffs to commence — which could lead to lives lost due to utility disconnections.”

    With the return of disconnection on the horizon at the time, CUB last week called on utilities to “be flexible with customers who are behind on their bills” and to voluntarily postpone disconnections until October.

    While extending the moratorium, the PSC stated it was urging customers to arrange payment plans with their utilities or to apply for the Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program for help if they have trouble with their energy bills.

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.