INDIANAPOLIS—As the number of Hoosiers falling behind in their monthly utility bills climbs, the agency that represents consumers is asking regulators to extend protections to struggling customers.
Attorneys for the Office of Consumer Counselor, citing the ongoing economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, filed a motion Wednesday with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to order the state’s utilities to continue suspending late fees and related charges and allow customers to set up repayment plans for a minimum of six months.
The IURC order suspending the late fees and ordering the utilities to give consumers time to repay their past due bills expires Monday.
“Allowing the requirement of extended customer payment arrangements of at least six months to lapse on October 12, 2020 threatens the fragile state of Indiana’s economic recovery and could result in harm to utility customers,” attorneys for the OUCC wrote in the motion.
As of August, the last month for which data is available, OUCC records show that more than 313,000 Hoosiers are at least 60 days delinquent in their utility bills, up about 40% over the prior year. Those customers owe almost four times as much on their utility bills than they did a year earlier—more than $58 million in 2020 compared to $15 million in 2019.
“We have been watching troubling data continue to pour in and we have heard directly from Hoosier families about how the pandemic is affecting them. Hoosiers are struggling,” said Jessica Fraser, director of the Indiana Institute for Working Families.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading in March, Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered a shutdown of all but the most essential businesses across Indiana as well as schools and other activities. Thousands of Hoosiers lost jobs and the unemployment rate reached 16.9% in April. The economy has partially recovered and the unemployment rate is 6.4%, but many have not recovered financially.
Holcomb also issued an order barring the state’s utilities from disconnecting customers, but that expired in mid-August. On Aug. 12, the IURC suspended the collection of late fees and other related charges and ordered the state’s utility companies to offer payment plans through Oct. 12 that would allow customers to work out payment plans for a minimum of six months.
Consumer Counselor Bill Fine told an interim legislative study committee earlier in the week that he believed the moratorium on the efforts made by utilities to collect on delinquent bills should have been extended to the end of the year.
Fine, under questions from lawmakers at the Energy, Utilities, and Telecommunications Interim Study Committee, said that his agency is concerned about the growing number of customers who are behind in their bills.
“What we’re finding now…historically high numbers of utility customers have very high bills,” Fine said.
Kerwin Olsen, executive director of Citizens Action Coalition, echoed the concerns of the OUCC.
“This is no time to drop consumer protection while we are knee deep in a pandemic,” he said.
Consumer advocates are concerned that without an extension, many utilities will return to the original three-month payment plans that are generally offered to consumers with delinquent bills. Some utilities, like Indiana and Michigan Power, have said they will continue to offer the more flexible six-month plans.
“CAC strongly encourages those consumers who have overdue balances with one or more of their utility providers to immediately reach out their providers to seek any available assistance,” Olsen said. “Failure to do so could unfortunately lead to those consumers being disconnected and losing access to essential services.”
But the majority of consumers with utility bills more than 60 days past due have yet to arrange for payment plans. OUCC data show that fewer than one in five customers in arrears are on a payment plan with one of the state’s six major utilities and of those, 20% are in default.
In 2019, about one in four customers with bills 60 days past due were on payment plans and more than a third of those were delinquent.
Olsen noted that some companies began disconnecting customers as soon as Holcomb’s original moratorium ended in August.
One of the companies that did not disconnect customers immediately after the ending of the moratorium, Indiana and Michigan Power, had the highest increase out of all utility companies in payment plans made. The company had 2,822 accounts on payment plans in August 2019 and a year later the number was 8,565.
Brian Bergsma, director of communications and government affairs for I&M Power, said his company began its disconnection process for customers with overdue bills in early September but continue to work with them to arrange for flexible repayment plans. The utility recently contributed $175,000 to the Neighbor-to-Neighbor Fund which goes directly to helping customers pay their bills.
The OUCC in its filing with regulators noted that if customers ultimately are able to pay off their overdue bills through payment arrangements, the utilities will see a reduction in the amount of debt they might have to write off, a burden that the remaining customers end up paying.
In addition to working out payment plans with their utility, customers who have difficulty paying their bills can also receive help by calling 211 and accessing energy programs such as LiHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
LaMonte Richardson Jr is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.