SCC renews disconnection ban until Sept. 15 but warns extension may be the last

Electric meters. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

State regulators announced Monday they would extend an existing moratorium on utility disconnections through Sept. 15 but signaled they don’t intend to renew it again unless ordered by the General Assembly. 

The new deadline will bring the moratorium’s total duration to six months since the State Corporation Commission enacted its initial ban in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This period of time has been sufficient to provide an opportunity for the General Assembly to choose whether to address legislatively the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on utility customers and utilities,” the commissioners wrote. 

The order “is, of course, subject to such measures as may be enacted by the General Assembly in the current special session,” they continued. “This Commission will, of course, follow any legislation the General Assembly enacts but cannot continue the moratorium indefinitely unless legislatively required to do so.”

In June the SCC warned that the “moratorium is not sustainable without government actions to protect other customers from cost-shifting.”

At that time the body directed utilities to offer payment plans of up to 12 months to customers who were unable to pay their bills because of the pandemic and ordered that no late payment fees should be levied on such customers as long as they stayed current with the new payment plan. 

Pointing out these measures, the State Corporation Commission wrote Monday that “the expiration of our moratorium does not mean that customers are without options for continuing utility service, and we strongly urge utilities to make every effort to accommodate customers who are making good-faith efforts to pay their bills.”

Democrats in both chambers of the statehouse have proposed a law that would require all utilities to develop an “Emergency Debt Repayment Plan” for residential customers to ensure that user costs remain “sustainable and affordable.” 

The proposal, introduced by Del. Lashrecse Aird of Petersburg in the House and Sens. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond and Ghazala Hashmi of Chesterfield in the Senate, would allow customers repayment periods of up to 24 months and cap minimum monthly debt payments at either $45.50 or 4 percent of household income, at the discretion of the utility.

Utilities would also be prohibited from recovering the costs of the debt repayment plan through base rates or a rate adjustment clause.

The Senate bill has been referred to the Committee on Commerce and Labor for review. The House, which has been bogged down by a dispute over whether the session should be conducted virtually, has not yet assigned Aird’s version to a committee.