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Florida power companies face legal challenge on disconnections during pandemic

Nonprofit advocacy group Earthjustice asked state regulators to prevent power shutoffs during the coronavirus pandemic.

When the pandemic hit, Zoraida Santana faced a difficult choice: Continue working to support her family, or take a leave of absence to minimize her 3-year-old’s potential exposure to COVID-19.

She opted to stay home from her job at Sam’s Club in March. Her toddler has congenital heart defects, which make her more susceptible to the risks of the coronavirus.

But as Santana’s funds dwindled, she and her partner realized they were more than $2,000 behind on energy bills for their Holiday home and risked losing power.

“Everything’s been going downhill,” she said.

Now Santana, 37, is at the center of the first legal challenge Florida’s power companies have faced against moves to resume disconnections during the coronavirus pandemic.

Advocacy nonprofit Earthjustice and the League of United Latin American Citizens filed a legal motion Tuesday asking Florida’s utility regulators to prevent power companies from shutting off customers' electricity if they fail to pay their bills during COVID-19.

Three of the state’s investor-owned utilities — including Duke Energy Florida and Tampa Electric Co. — have resumed disconnections for customers who fail to pay their bills.

“It is a matter of public welfare to make sure Florida utilities don’t cut people’s electricity off during a public health and economic crisis,” said Bradley Marshall, Earthjustice’s lawyer. “To protect public health, people need to be able to cool off in their own homes.”

Related: Tampa Bay power companies among first to resume shutoffs

Duke Energy and Tampa Electric began disconnections this month. Florida Power & Light announced it will resume disconnections as early as Oct. 1. All offer payment plans to customers in need. Gulf Power Co., which shares a parent company with Florida Power & Light, has not set a date to resume disconnections.

“Duke Energy’s goal is not to disconnect anyone, but connect customers with financial assistance and payment options,” spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said in a statement. “We want to be thoughtful and provide extended payment options to avoid power interruptions during the pandemic.”

Tampa Electric’s goal is “to not disconnect anyone’s service,” spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said in a statement. “Customers unable to pay their bill are encouraged to please call us as soon as possible, so we can work together to keep the electricity on.”

Florida utility customers currently have far fewer protections against shutoffs for failing to pay bills than other states. According to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, 21 states had a moratorium on shutoffs during the pandemic as of August, including California, Texas and New York. Several utilities in other states said they would voluntarily stop disconnections during this period.

According to the Florida utilities, resuming disconnections is necessary because of the unpaid costs. In regulatory filings, the investor-owned utilities reported roughly 1.25 million residential customers who fell behind on their bills. In August, Duke Energy said it had an $18 million revenue deficit between April and June compared to the same period in 2019.

Gulf Power Co. was recently given permission to begin a process that could charge all of its ratepayers for expenses it incurred during COVID-19.

In that case, the Office of Public Counsel argued that Gulf Power could cover that cost with money it earns back on its capital investments. Under Florida law, investor-owned utilities can collect a return on investments such as new power plants within a specific range. If their earnings drop below that, they are allowed to ask the commission to raise rates to get back within that range.

Duke Energy, for example, earned within its range on its most recent filing.

Charles Rehwinkel, a lawyer with the Office of Public Counsel, said that a moratorium on shutoffs isn’t a cut-and-dry issue because of the possible cost.

“What Earthjustice filed is a proper response to start a dialogue about how this thing ought to be done,” he said.

Under state law, the Florida Public Service Commission has 30 days to respond to Earthjustice’s petition for emergency rule-making.

The filing does not, however, stop Duke Energy from disconnecting Santana or any other customer.

Twins Annabell Khaznahkatbi, 8, foreground, and Julissa Khaznahkatbi, 8, play in the front yard of their home on Tuesday in Holiday. The children's mother, Zoraida Santana, stopped working in March for a period because her doctor said she would put the twins' three-year-old sister, Gabriella, in danger of contracting COVID-19 due to a preexisting congenital heart disorder. The break from work has put the family in the rears $2,000 with Duke Energy for their power bill.
Twins Annabell Khaznahkatbi, 8, foreground, and Julissa Khaznahkatbi, 8, play in the front yard of their home on Tuesday in Holiday. The children's mother, Zoraida Santana, stopped working in March for a period because her doctor said she would put the twins' three-year-old sister, Gabriella, in danger of contracting COVID-19 due to a preexisting congenital heart disorder. The break from work has put the family in the rears $2,000 with Duke Energy for their power bill. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

After five months of unpaid leave, Santana returned to her customer service position at Sam’s Club this month to help the family catch up on bills. Her partner, who is a handyman, still struggles to find work, as his usual stream of projects dried up during the pandemic.

Two months ago, Duke Energy put Santana on a six-month payment plan, requiring her to pay both her current bill and about $300 extra to account for back payments. After she told the utility she wasn’t able to afford payments, Duke Energy extended the period to a year, but she still struggles to cover the full cost.

Programs and outreach groups that Pasco County advertises will help with utility bills, Santana said, were at capacity when she called.

“If our electric gets disconnected, we will have to leave our house,” she said.

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