Aquarion, a subsidiary of Eversource that provides water to about 700,000 people in 57 cities and towns in Connecticut, began disconnecting customers with the largest unpaid bills in early February.
Aquarion’s plans to resume disconnections were approved by PURA, the state’s energy regulator, on Jan.12, without filed objections from any state agency or official.
That silence from state agencies broke on Thursday, when the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection filed a letter with PURA requesting a halt to additional water disconnections.
The letter was filed about 7 hours after CT Examiner asked department officials why the state had not objected to the Aquarion shutoffs, but did object earlier in the week to plans by the state’s utilities to resume shutoffs of gas and electricity.
In a statement on Friday, DEEP spokesman Tony Russell told CT Examiner that the number of customers affected, and the balances overdue, are significantly greater for electric and gas customers, explaining the department’s initial focus.
Russell said the state agency believes that all utility customers should be protected from shutoffs. “We have since completed a filing on behalf of regulated water customers, and we will continue to advocate on behalf of all utility customers to prevent disconnection until additional procedures for struggling ratepayers are put in place,” said Russell.
On Tuesday, officials at DEEP’s Bureau of Energy and Technology urged PURA to reject plans by electric and gas utilities to begin shutoffs, on the grounds that customers are still suffering the effects of the pandemic, and that expected federal relief could help resolve the problem.
Those objections followed a recommendation from PURA staff that the regulator approve a plan by Eversource to resume disconnections.
In a statement on Friday, PURA Chair Marissa Gillett said that Aquarion is the only utility approved to resume shutoffs, but that all utility customers are eligible for either a COVID-19 payment plan, or are “hardship” customers who cannot lose service between Nov. 1 and May 1 in any year.
“Any customer who is actively enrolled in a COVID-19 Payment Plan cannot be disconnected for nonpayment,” Gillett emphasized.
Shutoffs pressure customers into payment plans
Aquarion provides water to about 700,000 people in 57 cities and towns in Connecticut ranging from some of the state’s wealthiest towns – including Greenwich, New Canaan and Darien – to some of its most distressed, including Bridgeport and Norwich.
In mid-January, the company began mailing notices to customers with unpaid bills asking them to set up a payment plan to avoid water shutoffs.
Aquarion spokesman Peter Fazekas told CT Examiner that the company began shutoffs to about 10 customers a week in early February. Every one of those customers had water service resumed after establishing a payment plan, said Fazekas.
Before shutting off service, Aquarion mails two letters and then must knock on a customer’s door.
Between last March and this January, the number of Aquarion residential water customers enrolled in a payment program increased from 59 customers to 1,434 – representing a collective overdue balance of $923,704 — according to its latest report to state regulators. Fazekas said overdue balances range from an average of $150 to $500.
The payment plans can spread over as many as 24 months with no fees, interest or down payments required, said Fazekas. In addition, he said, Aquarion also has on-time vouchers of $50-250 for eligible customers.
“As long as they make their payments, their service will not be disconnected for the duration of that plan,” Fazekas said.
In the agency’s Wednesday letter objecting to electric and gas shut offs, DEEP Deputy Commissioner Victoria Hackett urged PURA to allow longer terms for those payment plans given the high amounts some customers owe.
Of the 1,434 residential Aquarion customers in payment plans, 293 of them – 20 percent – were failing to make their payments in January.
The numbers are even more stark for unpaid electric bills, which are typically more expensive than water bills. Of the 14,799 residential customers who have payment plans with Eversource, 4,313 – 29 percent – failed to make those payments, the company reported to PURA on Feb. 15.
While acknowledging that mounting utility debt could have “significant cost implications” in the aftermath of COVID-19, DEEP said that it was premature to begin disconnecting customers when many are on the verge of receiving federal aid.
“Many ratepayers will soon be eligible for some level of assistance from the federal government, which has designated more than $200 million to the state of Connecticut to assist renters with rent and utility payments,” the DEEP explained in a letter. “Significantly more funding may be on the way.”
That said, it would require significantly more federal funding to help customers struggling to pay off utility debt. Eversource residential electric customers alone owe about $196.7 million – just on bills more than four months overdue.
Eversource receives initial approval for shutoffs
The state’s largest electric utilities, Eversource and United Illuminating, have not yet resumed customer shutoffs, but the amount of residential electric bills left unpaid has surged during the pandemic.
DEEP urged PURA not to allow the utilities, including Eversource, to resume disconnections because it would have a “devastating impact” on the customers who are still struggling to pay their bills.
PURA has ordered the utilities to submit plans for resuming shutoffs to its Office of Education, Outreach and Enforcement for approval before disconnecting customers.
Both Eversource and UI filed plans late last year, and in a December filing Eversource announced that it would begin disconnections this January if its plan was approved.
None of the plans have yet been approved, but the Office of Education, Outreach and Enforcement recommended on Feb. 8 that the authority approve them.
Officials at the state regulator say that Eversource indicated that when it’s shutoff plan is approved, it would move to disconnect power for residential customers with overdue balances greater than $1,000, and commercial customers with overdue balances of more $500, who fail to establish a payment plan.
This story has been updated to include a statement from DEEP spokesman Tony Russell