With the COVID-19 pandemic closing businesses and driving unemployment to record levels, past due payments to Virginia utilities topped $184 million as of June 30 this summer.
The total, provided in a letter from the State Corporation Commission to House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, and Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, had been requested by 58 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in early June.
At that time legislators expressed interest in crafting legislation to address utility disconnections amid an economic crisis but said their efforts had been “hindered … by insufficient data on the extent of the problem.”
In the immediate aftermath of Gov. Ralph Northam’s declaration of a state of emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12, many Virginia utilities voluntarily stopped disconnecting water, electric, sewer or gas service for nonpayment of bills, and Dominion spokesperson Rayhan Daudani said the utility is “committed to extending that policy until at least October 14, with regulatory approval.” On March 16, the SCC issued a formal moratorium on such disconnections, a ban that was subsequently extended to June 15 and then Aug. 31.
But regulators have been wary of how long the moratorium can remain in place. In May, the SCC said the current situation was “not sustainable on an unlimited basis.” The commission’s June order extending the ban through Aug. 31 “emphasize[d] that utility regulation alone cannot adequately address what is a much broader socioeconomic catastrophe.”
The more than $184 million in past due payments reported to Filler-Corn and Lucas Friday only constitutes a portion of the arrearages state utilities actually face. A month and a half has passed since the information was collected, and the total provided by the SCC includes information from only 12 of Virginia’s 24 electric and gas utilities, including its two largest electric companies, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power.
These two companies also report the largest past due payment totals, amounting to $116.6 million and $20.8 million, respectively.
While the SCC letter does not provide a baseline comparison for typical past due balances, it notes that in conversations, “the utilities represented that these balances are higher than normal.”
Legislative proposals concerning utility disconnections are expected to be put forward in a special session of the General Assembly starting Tuesday. Northam’s press secretary, Alena Yarmosky, said in an email Friday that “the governor will be including an amendment on (the disconnection issue) in his proposed budget.”
Northam’s legislative priorities, released Friday, include “a moratorium on utility disconnections for electric, water and natural gas utilities until 60 days after the current state of emergency ends.”
In a statement, Filler-Corn commended Northam’s priorities for the session, including the commitment to halt utility cutoffs.
“We look forward to working with Governor Northam and the Senate to have an impactful special session that delivers needed relief for Virginians in every corner of the commonwealth,” she said.
This story has been updated to add a comment from Dominion.