Consumer organizations file emergency petition seeking immediate assistance for utility customers in the ongoing COVID-19 and Low-Income Affordability proceedings; urge swift resolution of the residential arrears crisis and unaffordable rates affecting New York’s utility consumers
Today, AARP New York and the Public Utility Law Project (“PULP”) filed a Petition with the State Public Service Commission (“PSC”) seeking emergency relief for the more than one million New York utility customers now at risk of electric, gas, water, and internet shutoffs. The organizations filed in three interrelated proceedings: the Low Income Affordability (Case 14-M-0565), COVID-19 (Case 20-M-0266), and the implementation of the Parker-Richardson Moratorium Act of 2021 (Matter 20-01676). Swift resolution of these matters is of critical importance to AARP New York’s 2.5 million members—including many who rely on Social Security as the majority of their income—and to the two million low-income New York utility consumer households on whose behalf PULP advocates.
AARP New York’s and PULP’s call to action was necessitated by the pandemic’s ongoing public health and economic impacts. The organizations are greatly concerned about the arrears and affordability crisis that New York faces now and especially for those that had difficulty paying their utility bill even before the pandemic started. As of now, approximately 1.2 million residential energy consumer households in New York owe more than $1.5 billion.
On June 24, 2021, the COVID-19 state of emergency ended and so did the blanket moratorium on utility service terminations for non-payment. However, under the Parker-Richardson Moratorium Act of 2021, residential and small business customers can request an additional 180 days of protection by contacting their utility and attesting to a change in financial circumstance due to the pandemic (i.e., “self-certifying”).
“While New York has ended its state of emergency, the pandemic’s economic pain is far from over,” said Beth Finkel, State Director of AARP New York. “Without urgent action from the PSC, thousands of New Yorkers could be cut off from critical utilities with almost no warning. Customers facing financial struggles due to COVID-19 deserve an opportunity to resolve their arrears without the threat of utility shutoffs.”
“More than a million households statewide are in financial peril and face termination of their vital electric, gas, water, internet or telephone services because they are unable to pay their utility bills due to the lingering effects of the pandemic,” said Richard Berkley, Executive Director of the Public Utility Law Project of New York. “We join our colleagues at AARP New York today in asking the Governor to continue his leadership against the COVID-19 crisis and require the Public Service Commission to take immediate action in coalition with the New York State Office of Temporary Disability Assistance, to resolve the $1 billion+ arrears crisis and reform the State’s historic low-income energy affordability program.”
The financial challenges caused by COVID-19 are compounded by the fact that no progress has been made in the State’s Low-Income proceeding and the State’s special COVID-19 proceeding to lessen arrears despite more than a year of inaction.
The City of New York, PULP, AARP, and other stakeholders demonstrated long ago that the State’s affordability program was failing to meet its stated goals of reducing the energy cost burden to less than 6% of income for low-income households. Therefore, utility service remained unaffordable even before COVID-19 for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers despite the State’s historic and well-intended affordability program.
In addition, there is no policy requiring utilities to encourage customers to first avail themselves of the myriad state and federal programs that offer financial assistance to customers in arrears, before seeking a deferred payment agreement that could cut them off from government help if given in the wrong order. To simplify and standardize such a process, AARP created a checklist to track the different programs available to consumers, which was subsequently adopted into the joint proposal of the National Grid NYC rate case.
The emergency petition filed by AARP and PULP urges the Commission to issue a series of immediate orders that
(1) prohibits service terminations for non-payment until the PSC approves and the utilities implement practical and consistent processes and programs regarding customer self-certification as well as adopt a checklist developed by AARP to pay-down residential consumer arrears by applying as much state and federal funding for arrears resolution as practicable before entering a deferred payment agreement;
(2) require the utilities to increase enrollment in the existing low-income rate discount program which caps a customer’s payment at 6% of their income; and
(3) create an arrears resolution process where management plans and deferred payment agreements are just, reasonable and applied in compliance with the Home Energy Fair Practices Act.
Media Contact: Jordan McNerney, jmcnerney [at] aarp [dot] org