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Florida power companies respond to call for moratorium on shutoffs

A moratorium is not needed, they say.

Florida’s energy companies filed comments Tuesday opposing advocates' call for a moratorium on shutoffs during the pandemic.

Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric Co., Gulf Power Co. and Florida Power & Light told regulators that a moratorium is not needed, citing their outreach efforts and assistance to customers.

“Because of our aggressive efforts on behalf of our customers, we believe the extraordinary relief the petitioners seek is not warranted at this time,” Duke Energy said in its filing.

Last week, Earthjustice and the League of United Latin American Citizens asked state utility regulators to require power companies to keep customers connected during COVID-19 to protect those who were unable to afford their bills.

The proposal was modeled after the recent eviction freeze from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If approved by the Florida Public Service Commission, Floridians would need to demonstrate that they are unable to afford their bills and actively apply for assistance to qualify for the moratorium, similar to how unemployment works. Power companies would need to show that they gave the customer adequate notice and an opportunity to pay before disconnecting them. If customers don’t meet the moratorium’s requirements, under the advocates' proposal, utilities would be allowed to proceed with a disconnection.

“It really is for those people who cannot pay their bills,” said Earthjustice lawyer Bradley Marshall.

But the power companies said the effort isn’t necessary. Many customers, they said, do end up paying their bills.

Duke Energy disconnected 17 residential customers during the pandemic, spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said. And of the 270,000 that received a disconnection notice, just 4 percent still faced disconnection after being connected with either community resources or a payment plan. Tampa Electric said 40 percent of its notices resulted in disconnection. Of that group, nearly all were reconnected once they agreed to a payment plan or got assistance from an outside party. Just under 3,500 Tampa Electric customers received assistance with bills. Florida Power & Light and sister company Gulf Power said that “historically,” 90 percent of customers that receive a disconnection notice get reconnected within a day.

These numbers are attributed to an array of outreach efforts and the option of interest-free payment programs, which all of the utilities offer. They cited numerous ways they have reached out to customers about assistance during the pandemic, such as fliers, webinars, calls, texts and mail.

Duke Energy said in its filing that it reached out to the Pasco County woman at the center of Earthjustice’s petition, Zoraida Santana, and her partner, Jesse Moody, to connect them with assistance through Mid-Florida Community Action in Pasco County.

Related: Florida power companies face legal challenge on disconnections during pandemic

All four companies cited a challenge in having customers reach out. According to Florida Power & Light’s filing, 85 percent of customers who are a month or more late on their bills haven’t reached out regarding payment plans, and “most” in this position do not contact the utility until there is a final disconnection notice.

Florida Power & Light and Gulf Power said shutoff notices are a way to “incentivize" customers to reach out.

“The unfortunate fact remains that the threat of disconnection is the only way to prompt most customers who are behind on their bills to take action to get help,” the companies said in a filing.

And bottom lines are also at stake, the companies said. Between January and June, about 25 percent of Tampa Electric’s customers were past-due on their bills, double the same period last year. It estimates this will cost the utility between $3 million and $4 million this year. Duke Energy said it was $18 million short in revenue between April and June of this year compared to the same period last year.

Earthjustice’s Marshall said those numbers are drop in the bucket.

“The utilities can spare a little money,” he said.

The issue is scheduled to come before the Florida Public Service Commission on Oct. 6. A staff recommendation that was scheduled to be released by noon Tuesday was not posted as of mid-afternoon.

The following are organizations the utilities said can provide financial assistance with utility bills: Salvation Army Share Program; City of Tampa bill payment assistance; Low-Income Energy Assistance Program; Emergency Home Energy Assistance for the Elderly Program: Rapid Response Recovery Assistance Program; Society of St. Vincent DePaul Conferences.

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