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PRC extends utility disconnection moratorium, but says legislative action is needed

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission has extended a moratorium on utilities disconnecting residential customers who have been unable to pay their utility bills. 

This comes as utilities face mounting amounts of unpaid bills and tens of thousands of customers have been unable to pay their bills.

"I think we all realize this is a major decision by this commission," said Commissioner Joseph Maestas during the Jan. 6 meeting. "Looking across the country, different states are taking different actions. But, you know, we are New Mexico and certainly we can't allow the moratorium on disconnections to expire."

PRC General Counsel Judith Amer said Public Service Company of New Mexico, the state’s largest electric utility, has 54,000 residential customers who have missed payments. Amer said PNM has the highest dollar amount of unpaid bills, totaling about $21.6 million in December. Of the residential and commercial customers that have unpaid bills, only 13.6% — 7,000 residential and 300 commercial customers — have entered into an extended payment plan with PNM.

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She said Southwest Public Service worked out a total of 8,880 payment plans with customers who were delinquent on paying bills. Amer said 1,389 customers were able to satisfy their debt through the payment plans and 1,394 payment plans are still active. But 5,486 of those payment arrangements were broken, meaning the customer defaulted on the payment plan. 

The moratorium alone will not be enough, Maestas warned. He supported a transition plan that would help customers who have not been able to pay bills and he said the PRC should pressure the Legislature to assist.

"This is a broader issue here that we need to think about," Maestas said. "The pandemic is not going to last forever. I don't think we really thought ahead about ok, what's this transition plan going to be like, how much time should we give people to get on their feet."

While the moratorium has been extended, the commissioners expressed concerns about how the moratorium will impact rural electric cooperatives that do not have shareholders.

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The PRC voted 4-1 to extend the moratorium and solicit input on ways to move forward that would help customers without causing financial ruin to small utilities like rural electric co-ops.

Commissioner Jefferson Byrd cast the sole dissenting vote. During the meeting, he expressed concerns about the rules impacting some utilities but not others. The PRC only has authority over investor-owned and cooperative utilities. That means municipal utilities do not have to abide by the PRC-issued moratorium and some of them are disconnecting customers.

Byrd also expressed concerns that furthering the moratorium could make it hard for rural electric cooperatives to continue operations.

"Not every one of our companies is a publicly-traded utility," Byrd said. "There's many small utility providers that rely on that monthly payment to pay their staff and make repairs and make sure that they're delivering the product as promised."

Commission Chairman Stephen Fischmann said the PRC may want to ask the Legislature for assistance both for customers and small utilities.

The PRC will have a future public meeting to discuss ways to address the pandemic’s impact on both utilities and residential customers that have not been able to pay their bills.

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The moratorium extension will remain in place at least through Jan. 29.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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