The Vermont Public Utilities Commission (PUC) on Tuesday issued an order halting all involuntary disconnections due to nonpayment of electricity, natural gas, and landline phone utilities until March 31st, 2021.
We are overjoyed and thank the PUC for making the right decision to prevent Vermonters from going without heat or electricity because they can’t pay their bills during a pandemic winter. However, we still believe the moratorium should extend through the state of emergency, as has been done for the eviction/foreclosure moratorium. But it is still a step in the right direction.
For context, in March of 2020, following calls from Vermont Legal Aid, the VT Department of Public Service (DPS), and utilities themselves, the Public Utility Commission (PUC) issued a moratorium on utility disconnections that went into effect on March 18th. But, after multiple extensions, the PUC allowed the moratorium to expire on October 15th.
One reason that the PUC did not extend the moratorium this fall is that the legislature allocated $8.5 million in federal CARES Act money in the Vermont COVID-19 Arrearage Assistance Program, VCAAP, intended to help pay Vermonters’ overdue utility bills. That money needed to be used by the end of the year, and by ending the moratorium – the thinking goes – they would bring more attention to the VCAAP program so Vermonters would apply for help. And many utilities, the PUC, and the Department of Public Service seem to agree that it worked.
But, because of the absence of extra funding and in recognition that the state must prevent Vermonters from being left without heat or lights this winter because they can’t pay their bills, we led a coalition of ten other Vermont organizations (and 356 Vermonters!) in joining Vermont Legal Aid in their call for the PUC to reinstate the moratorium on disconnections.
The moratorium, while presently vital to the wellbeing of Vermonters, is a band-aid that does not get to the heart of the issue of Vermonters being unable to afford their utility bills.
Now, it is vital that utilities and customers continue to work together to come up with longer term payment plans or other alternatives throughout this moratorium so bills don’t simply pile up with no longer term plan. And, ultimately, Vermonters need more funding to support with their past due utility bills.
We are hopeful that more federal funding may become available, and call on the legislature to make this a priority heading into the Vermont legislative session. We will continue to monitor this situation and provide updates and weigh in as needed.