Down to Business: Help on the way for delinquent middle-income gas and electric customers in NY

When regulators, consumer advocates and the state’s major utilities got together on the mounting problem of overdue gas and electric bills, something remarkable happened: an agreement to erase the bulk of the so-called arrears for the betterment of New York’s overall economy.

What this Energy Affordability Policy Working Group faced was an unprecedented rise in the number of households and businesses that couldn’t stay current on their utilities. The numbers were staggering: more than 1.2 million customers statewide owing $1.8 billion.

The problem came to be called a “utility arrears crisis,” which state Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, chairman of a standing panel on energy and telecommunications, said arose from the “perfect storm” of COVID-19, the war in Ukraine and other factors that threatened to replicate the foreclosure crisis that led to the Great Recession – but based on utility debt rather than mortgage debt.

Parker and others on a Zoom call last week hosted by AARP and City & State New York, a politics-focused print and online publisher, said low-income New Yorkers have long struggled with utility bills but the arrival of COVID and its shutdowns pushed middle-income earners and small businesses into the circle, too.

So after $250 million was secured in the 2022-23 state budget, the working group, under the direction of the Department of Public Service, the staff arm of the Public Service Commission – New York’s utilities regulator – got started.

What they cobbled together was half-a-billion dollars to pay off low-income customers’ past-due utility bills – with the hope of doing the same for delinquent middle-income/business customers, whose numbers were even larger.

The pot of money included the state allocation; federal rental assistance; pledges from New York’s largest utilities; and a 0.5% surcharge on the monthly bills of everyone else (amounting to $1 on a $200 bill).

The one-time credit occurred in August on bills accrued through May 1 for customers enrolled in the utilities’ various energy-assistance programs. The oldest bills – more than 60 days past due – were targeted.

But everyone recognized that low-income New Yorkers represented just a quarter of the arrears problem, so a Phase 2 would be needed to address other delinquencies to avoid what the utilities foresaw as “cycles of service terminations and reconnections” that could affect the state’s COVID recovery, according to a May report from the working group.

While some wanted Phase 2 developed before the start of this year’s heating season in October – which already is seeing higher bills – that didn’t happen.

On the Zoom call, though, Laurie Wheelock, executive director of the Public Utility Law Project, an Albany-based adviser and advocate for utility consumers, suggested a Phase 2 announcement was imminent.

Contacted later, her office declined to provide specifics, but said the Phase 2 work was “nearly done” and would likely be unveiled by year’s end, with adoption by the Public Service Commission early in the new year.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]

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