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Coronavirus ban on utility shutoffs in Pa. stays in place after PUC vote ends in a tie

Two Republicans wanted to lift the moratorium on shutoffs, saying that all utility customers will eventually have to pay for the increase in uncollectible accounts.

A Peco worker installs an upgraded electric meter on a house in Bristol.
A Peco worker installs an upgraded electric meter on a house in Bristol.Read moreMICHAEL S. WIRTZ / File Photograph

A deadlocked Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission could not agree Thursday on a plan to lift a COVID-inspired moratorium on service shutoffs, so an order preventing utilities from terminating service to non-paying customers will stay in place for now.

The commission split along party lines, 2-2, effectively defeating a measure supported by two Democratic members to create a study group to report back next month on recommendations for lifting the moratorium. The two Republican commissioners said the commission should allow utilities to begin sending out termination notices in August for customers who had fallen behind in payments.

Advocates for consumers and low-income customers have pressed the PUC to continue the moratorium, saying that many Pennsylvanians have lost work because of the coronavirus lockdown and are unable to pay their bills. The Republicans said that sufficient consumer protections are already in place, and the longer the moratorium remains in effect, the more money will go unpaid to utilities, which ultimately will be recovered from all ratepayers through higher rates.

“We believe the commission should take responsibility for the consequences of imposing the termination moratorium,” said John F. Coleman, Jr., a Republican. “This includes the consequences of asking those who have paid their utility bills on time to pay for those who have not. The difficult choices surrounding this matter will only become more cumbersome over time.”

The commission approved an emergency order on March 13 to put a moratorium in place as Gov. Tom Wolf was in the midst of a cascade of shutdown orders to help stop the spread of the virus.

The emergency order effectively extended the normal winter moratorium on shutoffs that is in place from November through the end of March. The PUC also encouraged utilities to restore service to customers who had been previously shut off.

The state’s electric, gas and water utilities last month reported that by the end of May, about 845,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers were sufficiently behind in payments that they would be subject to termination, an increase of 9.6%, or 75,000, from a year ago.

Of the accounts in arrears, about 790,000 are residential customers, including 211,000 classified as low-income families.

About 475,000 of the total customers get electricity service. The number of gas customers in arrears, 280,000, was actually nearly 8% lower than a year ago because gas bills were lower this year because of the mild winter.

Thursday’s deadlock repeated the outcome of the PUC’s meeting in June, when the two Republicans proposed lifting the moratorium on shutoffs. That measure also failed by a 2-2 vote. The commission normally has five members, but Wolf has not yet nominated a replacement to fill a vacancy that opened in April.

On Thursday, Gladys Brown Dutrieuille, the commission’s chair, suggested convening a “stakeholder initiative” comprised of the utilities, consumer and business advocates, low-income advocates and the PUC staff to report back by Aug. 3 on recommendations. Her motion was supported by David W. Sweet, the vice chair.

But the Republicans, including Coleman and Commissioner Ralph V. Yanora, said that the study group would delay any PUC action, and the opportunity for some customers to apply for supplemental federal low-income utility assistance would be lost.

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Two legal advocacy groups that Dutrieuille identified as part of the “stakeholder initiative,” Community Legal Services and Pennsylvania Utility Law Project, urged the PUC on Tuesday to extend the moratorium, saying that utility shutoffs would be devastating to Pennsylvanians.

“People do not know when they will be able to work again, and many are still waiting for unemployment income to come in,” the low-income advocates said. “Evictions and foreclosures have been stayed, but without similar protections against utility shutoffs, it will be impossible for households to take the steps necessary to stay safe and healthy, exacerbating the public-health crisis.”