PRC approves disconnection moratorium aimed at balancing needs of utilities and customers
AZTEC — As the pandemic continues to impact people's ability to pay utility bills, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission hopes a new order will help customers without causing irreparable harm to small utilities.
The PRC unanimously approved order on Feb. 3 that continues the practice of a temporary moratorium on residential disconnections but also has different provisions for large utilities compared to small ones.
The PRC meeting was streamed live on YouTube. The most recent order comes following lengthy discussions in January regarding the best way to approach the measure.
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Large investor-owned electric utilities like Public Service Company of New Mexico, as well as large gas utilities like New Mexico Gas Company, will have a 100-day moratorium on residential disconnections followed by a 90-day transition period under the new order. These companies are defined as having more than 100,000 meters.
Meanwhile, water utilities like AV Water Co. as well as small gas utilities and rural electric cooperatives like Kit Carson Electric Cooperative will have a 45-day moratorium on residential disconnections followed by a 45-day transition period.
A transition period is a time period utilities will use to notify customers of possible disconnections prior to a disconnection, giving more time for customers to enter into payment arrangements or pay the bills.
However, if the governor's emergency orders continue to be in effect past that point, the moratoriums will likely be extended.
Commissioner Joseph Maestas praised the work the PRC did to create a compromise.
"We listened to the entities in the workshop," he said prior to the vote on the order. "We are considering both sides, you know, the situation of the customers, the situation of the utilities, particularly of the co-ops. We're entertaining this idea of transitioning out of this devastating pandemic. And so I'm really proud of this. I think it showed great sensitivity and I think it really demonstrated that yes, we do have to balance the needs of the utilities and their investments and ratepayers."
He said he hopes that with vaccination and herd immunity there will be an economic recovery.
"I think that we are playing a small part in that transition to hopefully a full economic recovery," Maestas said.
Regulated utilities have been under a moratorium on disconnections for months.
"We don't want to let this order lapse, so we need to get this done now," said Commissioner Stephen Fischmann after Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar suggested voting on amendments individually rather than postponing the discussion until another date.
After lengthy discussions, the commissioners went through each proposed amendment individually and voted on the amendments to the proposed order prior to voting on the entire measure.
The PRC's orders only impact utilities it regulates, such as Public Service Company of New Mexico, New Mexico Gas Company and El Paso Electric. It does not impact municipal utilities.
Under the order, utilities are required to make efforts to get their customers onto repayment plans. These plans should go at least through Nov. 1. The plans should be tailored to the customer's individual needs.
The utilities will also be required to waive late fees.
Utilities will also need to provide monthly reports to the PRC. These reports should include information on efforts made to get customers into repayment plans.
Some companies have voluntarily created funds using shareholder investments to assist customers. The PRC will encourage those companies to continue offering those funds through the beginning of November.
The new order comes as the Legislature considers measures to help customers who have not been able to pay their utility bills.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at email@example.com.
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