State utility regulators unanimously opposed a proposal put forward by consumer advocates that would have imposed a 90-day moratorium on electricity disconnections.
Commissioners said the move was currently unnecessary and said they were encouraged by utilities' current efforts to assist customers with payment plans.
“We are simply saying that a change in our rule is not necessary,” Commissioner Donald Polmann said. “We are not saying that disconnections are an appropriate thing to do.”
The proposal, put forth by Earthjustice and the League of United Latin American Citizens, would have required utility customers to go through a process similar to the federal eviction moratorium. That requires those who have lost their jobs or seen a reduction in pay to submit a form saying they cannot afford their rent as a result.
As with the evictions ban, utility customers would have then needed to demonstrate that they were applying for assistance with various aid groups and were unsuccessful in getting funds. If they met these requirements, the state’s investor-owned power companies would not have been allowed to disconnect their power.
Last week, commission staff recommended denying the petition, saying the proposed process was too cumbersome for both utilities and their customers.
Commissioner Art Graham motioned to accept the staff recommendation Tuesday, seconded by Commissioner Julie Brown.
“So many people in Florida are hurting right now," Bradley Marshall, Earthjustice lawyer, said. “It’s sad that hard-working families are getting their power cut off in the middle of a pandemic.”
The commissioners expressed support for efforts the utilities are currently undertaking, such as working with customers on payment plans and waiving fees.
All of the state’s investor-owned utilities except Duke Energy Florida are waiving a fee that customers are typically charged to have their power reconnected. At the hearing, Duke Energy representative Leslie Quick said the utility would work with customers if they were unable to afford that reconnection fee.
Utilities reiterated their arguments Tuesday that the threat of disconnection is the only way to prompt customers to reach out for help.
One of the concerns commissioners raised at the hearing was how customers could distinguish between a scam call and a call from power companies reaching out about resources, as utilities often advise that they won’t reach out by phone about bill payments. A Duke Energy representative said the utility will not ask for payment by phone, and any payments the customer might make would be online.
Commissioners also asked utilities if they were promoting energy efficiency measures to help customers lower their bills in the future. The power companies and commission faced sharp criticism in recent years because of how meager utilities' energy efficiency goals were after being “gutted" in 2014. In July, the commission approved plans that would increase these programs for low-income residents after rejecting utilities’ requests to lower those 2014 goals.
Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Co. reiterated in statements that they are working with customers on bill payment plans to avoid shutoffs. Both encouraged customers to reach out if they need help paying their bills.
Duke Energy customers can call 800-700-8744 or visit duke-energy.com/ExtraTime, while Tampa Electric customers can call 888-223-0800 or visit https://www.tampaelectric.com/residential/payment-options/payment-assistance/.
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