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Utility Costs To Soon Catch Up With Consumers Due To COVID-19

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Mark Turnaukus
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Flickr / CC-by 2.0
A moratorium on electric and gas shutoffs to help households through the COVID-19 pandemic is set to expire at the end of August, with additional measures in place to help consumers catch up on their bills.

The looming end to a statewide rent moratorium is not the only thing sparking financial fear. A ban on utility shutoffs can't last forever—and a lot of renters and homeowners are behind on their bills.

When pandemic fears ramped up in mid-March and Gov. JB Pritzker implemented his first shelter-in-place executive order, the state told utility companies they couldn't turn off someone's water or electricity, nor could they charge late penalties.

That doesn't mean utility bills went away.

Town of Normal Water Director John Burkhart said unpaid or partially-paid bills are stacking up.

“At some point in time, that balance will need to be paid in full, or it will incur costs from the late fees and penalties again, and it could be subject to a shutoff," he said.

When the moratorium ends, it will affect a lot of people. Burkhart said a recent snapshot of delinquent accounts showed nearly 1,000 Normal households are behind on their payments. He said that number is usually closer to 400 or 500.

Burkhart said it's not clear how many of those 1,000 just mailed a check late or forgot, and how many are having trouble coming up with the money.

"It’s just a minimum of one day late. There’s a lot of people like that," he said. "There’s not a lot of people that have three, four, five months of payments not made.”

The City of Bloomington sees a similar trend. Communications Director Nora Dukowitz said the city sent disconnection notices to about 1,100 households in May of last year. This May, that number was more than 1,600—a 45% increase.

Shutoffs are set to resume in late September in Bloomington where the city council voted to extend the moratorium three months past the state transition to Phase 4 of the governor's reopening plan.

Burkhart said the town of Normal has not yet set a timeline.

“With ISU coming back here in the next few weeks, we’re kind of waiting to see what the local climate does with COVID—do we see a large spike, extra cases coming because of the additional people in the area? If that’s the case, that plan will probably get pushed out even farther into the fall, winter, maybe the new year before it’s implemented," Burkhart said.

Electric and gas payments will come due sooner. Large utility companies like Ameren and Nicor entered an agreement with the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) that would return the companies to business as usual—with additional measures in place to accommodate households financially strapped by the pandemi —at the end of August.

"That gives our customers about a month of a window of time to start to explore the resources that are out there to get themselves on the right track," said Tucker Kennedy, director of communications for Ameren Illinois.

Kennedy said there are plenty of options. All customers have to do is ask.

“We did introduce what we call our Fresh Start program, which is direct bill payment assistance that’s administered by Ameren Illinois," he said. "A customer calls in, we look at their current situation, we work with our credit department, and we may be able to provide up to $700 to apply directly to their account—$400 for the electric portion and $300 for the natural gas portion.”

Kennedy said he doesn't have clear numbers on how many customers are behind on their bills. But he said within nine business days of launching the Fresh Start program, Ameren Illinois already had allocated $2.5 million for 5,000 households.

Customers also will have longer to catch up on their debt.

“People need time," Kennedy said. "We don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last. We have kind of ebbs and flows, so what we want to give is peace of mind. So we’re offering our customers up to 24 months to repay. The number one thing that we’re telling our customers is that they have to take action."

He said they should also keep in mind that while assistance dollars are here today, they might not be tomorrow. The same is true for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.

Mark Kotte is with Mid Central Community Action (MCCA), which coordinates emergency financial aid services in McLean County. He said the federal stimulus package boosted LIHEAP funding, but that doesn't mean it will cover every household.

“Of course, the funds are limited. It’s not a bottomless pit. But they have been increased this year by the government, simply because of the COVID-19 situation," Kotte said.

MCCA started accepting LIHEAP applications last week. In just a couple of days, Kotte said, they had already received over 700 applications—with more coming in by the day.

Abe Scarr, director the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy group, said that if aid runs out and people are still unable to pay their bills, utility companies and the state should figure out how to keep people connected.

Scarr said unlike car payments, credit card debt, or any other expense that piles up during the pandemic, Illinois requires utilities to be affordable and accessible to everyone.

"It doesn’t do anyone any good to have people—especially when we need people to stay home—to have their power shut off, to have their heat shut off," Scarr said. "How we pay for it, we will have to figure out. But in the immediate term, people should not be disconnected from essential services during a pandemic.”

He said consumers who feel their utility company isn't making reasonable accommodations to help them catch up on payments or cuts off their service prematurely can file a complaint with the ICC and contact the Illinois Attorney General's office.

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