Gov. Phil Murphy said that a moratorium on shut-offs of gas, electric, water and internet services will be extended to the end of June, a decision that affords more time to deal with a crisis in which 1.2 million customers are way behind in paying utility bills.
The decision, announced Wednesday, comes at a time when state regulators are wrestling with how to help residents and businesses pay off more than $700 million owed to various utilities in unpaid bills as a result of the economic downturn created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The suspension on shut-offs would have ended on March 15 without action by the Murphy administration. There is a proceeding underway to figure out how those bills can be paid without causing more ratepayers to fall behind on their payments, but so far, there is little consensus among utility executives, consumer advocates and regulatory officials.
Murphy announced the extension of the moratorium during a routine briefing on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. “Today, I will sign an executive order to extend this prohibition until at least June 30th, and we will continue to work on easing the burden for residents with arrearages — especially as Congress works on a new round of COVID relief,” Murphy said.
In a NJ Spotlight News story published this week, Rate Counsel Director Stefanie Brand expressed optimism that federal dollars from a stimulus package might provide a chunk of money to allow utilities to establish arrearage-forgiveness programs to help New Jersey deal with the mounting unpaid bills by customers.
Good news for residents who are struggling
“This is very good news for New Jersey residents who are struggling to keep their lights on and keep their water running,’’ said Evelyn Liebman, director of advocacy for AARP New Jersey.
The New Jersey Utilities Association, a trade group representing utilities, disagreed with the extension, but vowed to work with the Murphy administration through the continuing proceeding.
“That said, at some point the moratorium will end and it is clear we need a plan to resolve past-due utility bills so that we can increase focus on customers who are truly in need,’’ said Tom Churchelow, president of the association.
Churchelow said the association agrees with Rate Counsel that the dollar amounts are too large for utilities to absorb. Instead, the state should look at expanding whether an arrearage-forgiveness program can be expanded through the state’s Universal Service Fund. The program finances assistance to low-income customers to help pay their utility bills.
“Extending the shut-off moratorium is the right move, both for the sake of protecting public health and to provide some relief to families struggling with economic hardship by the pandemic,’’ said Matt Smith, state director of Food & Water Watch.