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April 29, 2020

Ban on biz utility shut-offs extended a month, but payment plans are coming

Citing the need for Connecticut’s electric, natural gas and water companies to provide reasonably priced and reliable service now and in the future, state regulators have ordered utilities to launch a new repayment program for ratepayers having trouble paying their bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority also ordered that a moratorium on utility shut-offs for commercial and industrial ratepayers, originally set to expire Friday, be extended to June 1. There’s an existing moratorium still in place for residential ratepayers, which will end when Gov. Ned Lamont rescinds the public health and civil preparedness emergency he declared in March -- a date that has not been announced.

PURA’s decrees were laid out in an interim order on Wednesday.

Since mid-March when the pandemic struck Connecticut, PURA has been weighing petitions from Attorney General William Tong and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection requesting that the regulator support ratepayers during the public health emergency and recovery to come.

In response, PURA quickly banned utility shut-offs for residential ratepayers, and soon after it added other ratepayers to the moratorium, but only until May 1, which is now extended by one month.

With the non-residential moratorium set to expire Friday, PURA on Wednesday gave commercial and industrial ratepayers another month of guaranteed service (with the exception of shut-offs for public safety reasons), but ordered utilities to begin offering all ratepayers “an adaptable, flexible payment plan” that it’s calling the COVID-19 Payment Program.

The plans are available to any ratepayer requesting assistance, and utilities cannot mandate a determination of financial need or require an initial or down payment. The repayment period can be as long as 24 months. Utilities can choose to defer the first monthly payment until July 1 for unemployed residents or shut-down businesses, but it is not required.

“[PURA] must balance the obligation to assist our most vulnerable citizens and those experiencing financial difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic with the obligation to ensure that [utilities] are able to provide safe, reliable, and efficient services at reasonable utility rates now and in the future,” PURA wrote in its order. “Striking this balance requires the creation of reasonable and prudent payment plans that support those who need it while ensuring the [utilities] have sufficient financial resources to maintain essential utility services. In short, the Authority is focused on providing options for all customers to pay what they can, when they can, during this time of uncertainty.”

The new payment program does not replace or change any other financial assistance or hardship programs offered by the utilities, and utilities may steer customers towards those programs if they qualify, PURA said.

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