Utility customers behind on their bills avoid cutoffs for another month

    Power lines (photo from Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

    A statewide moratorium on shutting off power, water and other utilities got another extension Thursday, this time until Oct. 1.

    The state Public Service Commission voted 2-1 Thursday to extend the moratorium because of the continued COVID-19 pandemic and its disruption to the economy. The change prevents utilities from disconnecting service to customers who don’t pay their bills. The moratorium, imposed March 24 and originally scheduled to end July 25, was extended on July 23.

    PSC Chair Rebecca Cameron Valcq identified several factors that led her to favor the extension: the upswing in confirmed positive COVID-19 cases; Gov. Tony Evers’ institution of a new state health emergency effective Aug. 1; reports of school around the state — and nationally, colleges and universities such as the University of North Carolina and Notre Dame — that have pulled back on plans for holding classes in-person in the fall and instead opting for a virtual start to the semester; and the expiration of federal supplemental unemployment benefits at the end of July.

    “When I look at the data and I view it holistically, I don’t think we have a choice,” said Valcq, in a meeting that was conducted remotely as a public health measure.

    Commission member Ellen Nowak cast the only vote against extending the moratorium.

    “We shouldn’t allow people who are middle or upper income or millionaires to be excused from paying their bills,” said Nowak. “We have measures in place to help people who have hardship paying utility bills.” If people have difficulty keeping up with their bills because of the pandemic, she said, “our response to that should be directed to those who have a hardship, not the entire state.”

    About one-third of the state’s 4.2 million utility accounts — which include water, gas or electric service — are in arrears, while about two-thirds of the nearly 23,000 low-income accounts are, according to the PSC.

    Valcq said her focus wasn’t on the ability to pay, but rather “the ability to have the resources available to continue to practice social distancing and to continue to practice hygiene.” By letting a utility disconnect any customer, that could “send them out to places to congregate in order to stay cool,” she says, “or they lose their ability to practice public hygiene, that to me outweighs the ability to pay.”

    Tyle Huebner, who joined with Valcq in voting to extend the disconnection moratorium, said the commission could look at ways to make it easier for customers who fall behind in their payments to make deferred payment agreements.

    The commission members will again consider whether to continue the disconnection moratorium or pursue alternatives when they meet again Sept. 17.

    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.