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Non-profits prepare for surge of high power bills when shutoff ban ends

Arizona Utilities Politics APS
Posted at 10:24 PM, Sep 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-13 08:29:13-04

PHOENIX — Non-profits across Arizona are gearing up for an influx of overdue bills when the mandatory ban on utility shut-offs across the state is lifted on October 15.

The moratorium, in place since June, was enacted by the Arizona Corporation Commission (AZCC) after it learned of the death of an Arizona Public Service (APS) customer whose power had been cut during hot weather in 2018.

Cynthia Zwick is with Wildfire, a non-profit that coordinates getting federal and local utility assistance funds to non-profits that directly serve low income populations. She says the nearly four and a half month delay of disconnections will add up to very high bills.

"I expect to see thousands of customers that have, for a variety of reasons, not been paying consistently or not been paying the full amount on their bill seeking assistance," Zwick says.

In its biweekly reporting on disconnections, APS reported that as of August 30, customers owe $22.1 million on 87,537 delinquent accounts.

That compares to $8 million owed during the same period in 2018.

Zwick says the APS 2017 rate case included funding for its Crisis Bill Assistance program to cover the bills of customers who were facing an emergency such as job loss. Non-profits like Wildfire, Chicanos Por La Causa (CPLC) and The Society of St. Vincent de Paul help distribute the money.

APS Chief Executive Donald Brandt explained during the September 4 AZCC meeting and in a letter that the company increased its contribution to the fund to $2.75 million. But, Zwick says she doesn't think it will be enough to fill the need.

"Last year, there was a two-month period where APS wasn't disconnecting customers and the agencies that provide direct assistance were seeing bills that were as high as $2000," Zwick said. "We expect to see that kind of bill."

In addition, there are several restrictions for who qualifies for emergency bill help. APS customers can receive up to $400 in a 12-month period provided they can prove their crisis situation, and make up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For 2019, that is about $24,980 before taxes for a single person.

CPLC is entering its second fiscal year distributing APS crisis funds. Andres Contreras, Executive VP of Social Services and Education, says it has already distributed payment for 1939 accounts. Contreras estimates the agency has enough left to fund 2500 accounts. If that runs out, Contreras says they're likely to ask APS for more.

"I'll think they'll (APS) be open to it if the needed arises," he says.

The Salvation Army distributes project SHARE assistance which is funded by APS, SRP, and Southwest Gas, along with donations from their employees and customers. The program is open to the customers of those utilities, is strictly crisis-based, and is one of the few that does not have an income restriction. The most that can be received is $300 every two years.

In addition to crisis help, APS customers can apply for long-term assistance through its Energy Support Program. It provides a monthly 25 percent monthly discount. The discount increases to 35 percent if there is medical equipment involved. But the program has an even lower threshold for income than the crisis program.

Many customers will make too much to qualify for most programs, and will have to either pay in full or rely on a payment plan to prevent disconnection.

APS says delinquent accounts more than $75 in arrears will be enrolled in a four month payment plan when the moratorium ends. The company says no fees will be assessed, and deposits will be applied before any disconnection. A spokesperson says the company is still reviewing whether a new deposit will be required of customers whose accounts use those funds.

"That's still going to be impossible for too many people to pay," Zwick says if consumers are having trouble, "Seek assistance now and let them (utilities) know that they are struggling to pay their bill."

APS is pushing a similar message with reminders in paper bills and door hangers to, "Make a payment today to keep your balance from continuing to build through the summer."

A spokesperson says customers who need more time pay past the four months should contact customer service for additional options.