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Expiration of Utility Disconnect Moratoria Causes Hardship

Following what was a hard winter in many parts of the country, the change of season can be welcome.

But the warmer weather also signals a struggle for many as cold-weather rules against disconnecting service to people who are behind on their utility bills come to an end.

The rules, and the periods of time they cover, vary across the country. New Jersey’s moratorium on disconnections, for example, ended March 15. In Minnesota, however, the deadline is a month later. In a number of other states, the disconnection-rules extend through March.

Iowa is one of those states. The Iowa Bureau of Energy Assistance calculated that low-income assistance recipients and others who owe money on utility bills are behind by more than $35 million. As of January, the Bureau said 267,710 Iowans were past   due on their utility accounts. That figure was a record and a 10 percent increase from January 2010.

Utility companies around the country have been notifying customers and the press concerning the upcoming disconnection dates, including, in many cases, urging customers who are behind in their payments to contact the local agencies that administer LIHEAP funds.

The companies offer various payment plans for customers who are behind on their bills, but for many, those payments can be unaffordable.

Other customers are turning to emergency funds.

In New Jersey, the moratorium on disconnections ended the day before customers were allowed to apply for emergency LIHEAP funding. One office in Trenton saw so many customers come to apply that some who were standing in line outside in rainy weather were asked to return later.

Customers who’ve already received LIHEAP but are behind in payments to their utility companies have until May 2 to apply for emergency help in New Jersey.

The long winter, faltering economy, and rising energy prices have made the end of the disconnection moratoria loom larger than usual in many places.

In Pennsylvania, the cold weather and rising energy prices prompted the state to extend the deadline for applying for LIHEAP aid two weeks to April 15.

And, bowing to the cold weather and even colder economy, Rhode Island's largest utility, National Grid, voluntarily agreed not to disconnect low-income customers for nonpayment until May 1.

Henry Shelton, who directs the George Wiley Center in Pawtucket had put in a request to the state’s public utility commission to extend the moratorium.

He said the principal reason was “the high number of unemployed workers.”

“The majority of calls we have gotten lately about shut offs have been from people who have lost their jobs and aren’t used to getting a shut-off notice,” he said.

The disconnection deadline in South Carolina also was March 15. At a city commission meeting in Rock Hill, where commissioners were considering approving a rise in utility rates, Glatia Wilkerson, 65 and disabled, said she was applying for emergency aid. Wilkerson, who had worked in medical records, now needs oxygen herself 24 hours a day.

She lives on $1,100 a month that she uses for all expenses.

"I don't come up with $300 for the bill, I have no electricity for the oxygen," Wilkerson said. "I've been robbing Peter to pay Paul for months.”

For a state-by-state listing of disconnect moratoria nationwide, visit  the LIHEAP Clearinghouse. 

Source:  News reports