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Local utilities won't yet start disconnects for unpaid bills

Local utilities will give thousands of customers a break and not immediately cut off those who are behind in payments, even though a moratorium on disconnections expires next week.

Representatives from Albemarle County Service Authority, the city of Charlottesville and Central Virginia Electric Cooperative said they’re working with customers in arrears to get on payment plans ahead of making disconnections of water and electricity. They said they are hopeful that federal money can continue to help with some of the unpaid bills.

The reprieves don’t come without a cost for the utilities, said Melissa Gay, CVEC’s communications and member services manager. Overall, the three entities are due more than $1.6 million dollars from customers.

“It packs a punch for a member-owned cooperative,” said Melissa Gay, CVEC’s communications and member services manager, of the more than $1 million the co-op is missing. “On the flip side of that, we know that so many of our members have been impacted by the pandemic and continue to struggle with making decisions for paying the light bill, or paying the grocery bill, the water bill, or even the rent at this point, so we are willing to work with our membership as best that we can to put them on a payment plan,” Gay said.

Soon after the pandemic struck, the State Corporation Commission instituted a state wide moratorium on utility disconnection. The moratorium expired in October 2020 but was reinstated in November, 2020. That moratorium lasts until Aug. 29.

During the General Assembly special session in early August, lawmakers allocated $120 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to help provide direct assistance to residential utility customers with accounts over 60 days in arrears.

Over the course of the last year and a half, about 1,100 accounts in the city have been in arrears for water, waste water and natural gas for a total of about $550,000, said Chris Cullinan, Charlottesville’s finance director.

“We’re not going to start August 29, or any time in the immediate future, and we don’t have a restart date in mind at this point,” he said, of disconnecting customers who have bills due.

Charlottesville received about $200,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding to apply utility bills in arrearage earlier this year, but Cullinan said the city is unsure how much it will get this time.

“We’re pretty confident that whatever funds we do receive will not cover all the arrearages in total, so we also want to work with folks on setting up payment plans to get their accounts back to where they need to be,” Cullinan said.

The Albemarle County Service Authority, retail provider of public water and sewer service in Albemarle, has about 550 customers who owe $100 or more, with most owing less than $500. The total amount for accounts 60 or more days past due is approximately $251,000.

ACSA received about $180,000 in CARES Act funding, which has assisted almost 300 customers. The service authority expects to apply all of that money to accounts by the end of this month.

Quin Lunsford, ACSA’s director of finance, said the authority will not immediately resume disconnections for non-payment after the moratorium is lifted.

“At this point, we don’t have an anticipated timeline to recommend changes to our board, but will be closely watching allocations from the state for the residential utility bill assistance program as well as the new Low Income Home Water/Wastewater Assistance program,” he said.

About 2,500 accounts with CVEC, or about 10% of active accounts, are 60 days or more in arrears, Gay said.

“We’ve steadily been reaching out to our members, trying to coax them to get on a plan where they can divide it up into small chunks,” she said.

CVEC, which serves customers in 14 localities, included information about the moratorium ending in a recent bill, which Gay said generated a lot of phone calls.

“We will not be resuming disconnects next week,” she said. “It’s too soon, and we want to have a little more time to get messages out to our members to let them know.”

Once CVEC does resume disconnections, members will receive a 10 day notice before they are disconnected.

“If they’re in arrears, we want to work with them, we want to break it up into smaller bites to make it more manageable and not disconnect for a large sum of money,” Gay said. “We know that people are still hurting and our priority is to take care of our members. We just need them to contact us.”

Appalachian Power has resumed disconnections for non-payment in West Virginia and Tennessee, according to the company’s website, and will start on Aug. 30 for nonresidential customers in Virginia.

Until March 1, 2022 Dominion Energy is prohibited from disconnecting service for residential customers who have received federal, state, nonprofit entity or utility payment assistance at any time between January 2019 and July 31, 2021, among others who have received assistance through other specific federal programs during that time.

With state budget language passed earlier this month, the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and State Corporation Commission will survey utilities to determine the amount of unspent utility assistance funds previously provided, as well as the level of outstanding customer arrearages as of Aug. 31. The reports are due by Nov. 1.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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