Utility regulators leave moratorium on shutoffs in place
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania state utility regulators have effectively extended a moratorium preventing utilities from terminating service to non-paying customers for three more weeks while the state fights the spread of the coronavirus.
The four-member panel of two Democrats and two Republicans postponed a vote on Thursday’s agenda until Sept. 17, after deadlocking twice on motions to lift the moratorium over the summer.
The Public Utility Commission slapped a moratorium on shutoffs in March as Gov. Tom Wolf was in the midst of a cascade of shutdown orders to help stop the spread of the virus.
In letters to the commission, Wolf, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and consumer advocates called on the commission to keep the moratorium in place, warning that people are still being hit hard economically by the fallout from the virus.
One theme of their comments is that the commission needs to construct a comprehensive plan to protect consumers when the moratorium does lift.
“If the commission insists on lifting its moratorium, then at a minimum I ask it to require utilities to offer customers some options of financial relief, such as late fee waivers, rate reductions, flexible payment arrangements, and/or debt forgiveness,” Shapiro wrote. “I also ask that the commission place the burden on the utilities to prove that specific consumers are able to pay and failing to do so.”
It is unfair to require consumers to “jump through hoops and collect cumbersome paperwork just to keep the bill collectors at bay,” Shapiro wrote.
The Energy Association of Pennsylvania, which represents electric utilities, asked the commission to end the moratorium starting in September, and said continuing it is not in the best interests of customers.
Extending the moratorium increases the risk that growing unpaid dollar amounts will lead to an increase in terminations, it said. Customers who are falling behind in paying their bills should be notified about utility and government assistance programs, it said, and it warned that a lack of payment may hurt the ability of utilities to provide safe and reliable service.
Its member utilities reported that residential customers owed $404 million through June 30, compared with $291 million at that same point last year, it said.
In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania:
HIGHER ED INSTRUCTION
Bloomsburg University is the latest Pennsylvania school to shift all instruction to remote learning starting Monday after it saw an outbreak of coronavirus cases.
“With care and concern for the safety and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff, their families, and our neighbors in the town of Bloomsburg, it is clear that we must make this transition and modify our on-campus operations to protect our community from the continued spread of the COVID-19 virus,” the university’s president, Bashar W. Hanna, said in a statement Thursday.
Bloomsburg, one of 14 state-owned schools, saw 90 new cases of the virus on campus. It has more than 8,500 students, with about 2,200 living on campus.
Students living on campus will not be required to leave residence halls, the state-owned school said, noting that a number of them come from areas without broadband access or may not have the support they need to complete the semester.
Students who return home will be reimbursed for their remaining room and board, the school said.
Several other state-owned universities and a number of private colleges and universities in Pennsylvania have shifted to remote or online instruction for the fall semester. Some, including the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, initially tried to reopen with in-person instruction.