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Florida advocates join national call for utility disconnect moratorium

Just over a dozen Florida advocacy groups were part of the 636 signatories to the letter.
Florida advocates joined a national call for utility disconnect moratorium Wednesday. Pictured is a lineman with a Duke Energy Florida subcontractor in January 2020. | [Douglas R. Clifford | Times]
Florida advocates joined a national call for utility disconnect moratorium Wednesday. Pictured is a lineman with a Duke Energy Florida subcontractor in January 2020. | [Douglas R. Clifford | Times] [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]
Published Jan. 13

Hundreds of advocacy and faith groups from around the country urged the incoming president and vice president to enact a moratorium on utility shutoffs during the pandemic when they take office.

In a Wednesday letter, more than 630 groups proposed an executive order that would prevent water, power, heat and broadband from being disconnected if customers cannot afford their bills during the pandemic. Among the signatories were 13 Florida advocacy groups.

“The crisis is still here. Our communities have not bounced back, and to put this extra burden on communities isn’t right,” said Carlos Torrealba, climate justice program manager for Central Florida Jobs with Justice. His organization is a signatory.

Should the measure be enacted, utility companies across the country would also need to reconnect customers who were previously disconnected for the same reason. The proposed order would remain in place for a full year after “COVID-19 no longer constitutes a national emergency.”

It also enables utilities to request to be exempted once a state of emergency is lifted as long as the company followed all applicable moratoriums, didn’t charge late fees or other “punitive measures” during the moratorium and offered repayment plans.

Several of Florida’s power companies, including the two that serve much of Tampa Bay, resumed disconnections in the fall after voluntarily pausing them for several months beginning in March.

Advocates across Florida have pushed for a ban on this practice, saying puts significant pressure on low-income customers and families.

Duke Energy Florida, which serves much of Pinellas County and 1.3 million customers around Florida, shut off power for more than 20,000 residential customers in November, the most recent figures available. That’s up about 75 percent from the same month in 2019. Tampa Electric Co., which covers most of Hillsborough County, disconnected more than 4,200 customers in November, down by about 50 percent from the same month in 2019.

Between the two utilities, most customers were since reconnected, leaving about 2,000 customers without power.

Duke Energy also paused disconnections and fees in mid-December for a short period, while Tampa Electric gave customers who got “certain federal low-income assistance” in 2020 an $85 bill credit in January.

Related: Tampa Bay power shutoffs in November up from year prior

Unlike other densely-populated states, Florida has not a had a ban on utility disconnections during the pandemic. A group of nonprofit and advocacy groups wrote letters to Gov. Ron DeSantis last year urging him to enact greater protections for housing and utilities, but he did not take up the issue.

Related: Pressure builds as Florida advocates call for utility, housing relief

Last fall, Earthjustice and the League of United Latin American Citizens brought a legal challenge to the shutoffs. The groups asked state regulators to implement a 90-day moratorium and a process similar to the federal eviction moratorium where customers who couldn’t afford their electricity bills would apply to keep their power on by showing they were affected by the pandemic and actively looking for assistance.

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The Florida Public Service Commission’s five commissioners unanimously opposed the request, calling it unnecessary.

Related: Florida utility regulators deny request for power shutoff moratorium

The December COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress did not cover a utility shutoff moratorium.

For assistance, Duke Energy customers can call 211, visit 211.org or visit duke-energy.com/ExtraTime for extended payment arrangements. Tampa Electric customers can visit https://www.tampaelectric.com/updates/ or call 888-223-0800.

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