The State Corporation Commission
The State Corporation Commission regulates Virginia electric utilities. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

The State Corporation Commission on Friday extended a mandatory moratorium on the disconnection of utility services due to nonpayment of bills until Aug. 31 in order “to allow time for the General Assembly to meet in special session to address the COVID-19 crisis in a more comprehensive manner.”

“Our purpose since our original order of March 16th imposing a moratorium on service shut-offs has been to protect Virginia’s utility customers who, through no fault of their own, have been the victims of the devastating economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, while recognizing that an unlimited moratorium is not sustainable without government actions to protect other customers from cost-shifting,” the regulators wrote. 

“Utility regulation alone,” they added, “cannot adequately address what is a much broader socioeconomic catastrophe.”

The decision followed the commission’s May 26 solicitation of input from officials and the public on whether a more than two-month-long disconnection ban should be extended.

The more than 300 responses that were subsequently filed over the next two weeks offered a broad array of recommendations, ranging from keeping the mandatory moratorium in place to getting rid of it entirely.

Most persuasive to the commission seems to have been a letter signed by 58 state delegates and senators from both sides of the aisle. 

In their filing, lawmakers asked not only that the moratorium be extended to Aug. 31 but that utilities be required to provide extensive data on the extent of the crisis, including the number of customer accounts with unpaid balances this year compared to last year, revenue and earnings history and “the magnitude of late fees and penalties that would have been charged absent the moratorium.”

Regulators’ Friday order accedes to legislators’ request for more information but limits the data utilities must submit to outstanding balances resulting from the disconnection ban as of May 31, associated collections and additions to outstanding balances between June and August, and the final accounts receivable balances “net of collections and additions” on June 30, July 31 and August 31. 

Other key provisions of the order forbid utilities from charging reconnection fees to previously disconnected eligible customers, require them to offer extended payment plans with no late fees or reconnection charges to residential and small business customers whose unpaid bills are the result of COVID-19, and allow any utility “facing cash-flow problems due to unpaid bills that threaten the continuation of service to all customers or long-term financial harm to the utility” to petition the SCC for specific relief measures. 

However, in the latter case, the commissioners note that relief can only be sought after the utility makes “diligent efforts to obtain access to other sources of suitable working capital as may be available from governmental or private sources.”

The full text of the order can be found here