N.H. Consumer Advocate Wants Public Rulemaking On Plans To End COVID-19 Utility Shutoff Ban
New Hampshire’s utility consumer advocate wants more transparency and public input on plans to lift the state's ban on utility shutoffs this month.
In a new emergency petition, ratepayer advocate Don Kreis says the state's electric, water and gas utilities are reporting large swaths of customers who've held off paying their bills in the past few months.
He cites increases in overdue bills from a year ago, which the utilities presented to the Public Utilities Commission in mid-June, including:
- Eversource: accounts receivable, more than 60 days old, are up 45%
- Unitil: residential gas and electric accounts receivable, more than 90 days old, are up 28%
- Liberty Utilities: gas customer payments are down as much as 29%
These changes come during a moratorium on service disconnections for lack of payment – one of the first emergency orders that Gov. Chris Sununu issued as COVID-19 arrived in the state.
On Tuesday, Sununu announced that ban will lift on July 15. The order lays out few stipulations, but says service providers should follow guidance from the PUC on how to resume shutoffs and collect overdue payments.
Kreis, an independent appointee of the governor, says he learned as that order was issued that the PUC had worked directly with the state's utilities to finalize that guidance in late June.
Their plan, according to Kreis, would resume shutoff notices for commercial customers on Aug. 16 and residential customers on Sept. 16. Late payment charges would resume Sept. 1 and Oct.1 , respectively, unless customers set up a 12-month payment plan. Medical accounts could not be shut off until 2021.
"Customers are suffering and customers are dying. Whatever protections replace [the shutoff moratorium] is a question that should be addressed publicly." --Consumer Advocate Don Kreis
Kreis says that as recently as June 17, at the same PUC conference where the utilities presented their data on overdue bills, he and utility justice advocates from New Hampshire Legal Aid were recommending a more lenient approach to resuming shutoffs – one that would be “considerably more solicitous of the needs of ratepayers, particularly those facing unemployment and other dire economic stresses," Kreis writes.
During that discussion, Kreis says there was no mention that the shutoff moratorium might soon be rescinded, or of “behind-the-scenes discussions” between the PUC, utilities and governor’s office.
A spokesman for Sununu denies that the governor's office was part of those talks, saying in a statement: "The PUC worked directly with the regulated utilities on how to proceed after the moratorium is lifted on July 15th. Our Office had no involvement in the discussions between the PUC and the utilities and any suggestion to the contrary is patently false."
Kreis says he wants the PUC to put all these plans through a formal and public emergency rulemaking process, especially in light of the ongoing economic and health crisis.
“Customers are suffering and customers are dying,” Kreis says in his petition. “Whatever protections replace Emergency Order #3 [the original shutoff moratorium] is a question that should be addressed publicly so that ratepayer representatives can be heard and have a fair opportunity to influence the Commission’s decisionmaking.”
Kreis filed his petition Tuesday and says he didn’t immediately get a response from the PUC.