Despite PRC moratorium on utility disconnections, customers have received disconnect notices
Commissioners issue order clarifying issue during March 17 meeting
AZTEC — Despite a moratorium prohibiting disconnection of residential utilities due to nonpayment, some New Mexicans have received disconnection notices.
A Feb. 3 PRC order prohibits rural electric cooperatives, water utilities and small gas companies from disconnecting service prior to May 5. Meanwhile investor-owned utilities and large gas companies cannot disconnect service prior to Aug. 12.
Municipal-owned utilities and mutual domestic water utilities are not regulated by the PRC. The moratorium applies to utilities regulated by the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission.
While it was not on the PRC agenda for the March 17 meeting, the PRC chose to issue an order clarifying that utilities cannot issue disconnection notices that imply service could be disconnected prior to those dates.
The Open Meetings Act allows the commission to take action on items not advertised on the agenda in the case of an emergency and then to ratify the decision the following week. The PRC must notify the New Mexico Attorney General about the action and the reasons why it was considered an emergency.
Commissioners expressed concerns that customers could be harmed if the disconnection notices continue to be sent out and that waiting for a future meeting to address it could allow more disconnection notices to be sent to customers.
“I don’t want to sit on this another week,” Chairman Stephen Fischmann said. “I think we should act on this very quickly.”
The Feb. 3 order set up a 45-day moratorium on disconnections for rural electric cooperatives, small gas companies and water utilities. That moratorium ends March 20 and is followed by a 45-day transition period. Disconnections are not allowed during the transition period, which ends May 5. Between March 20 and May 5, utilities are supposed to work with customers to arrange payment plans.
There are two utilities in the PRC District Three boundaries that sent notices to customers stating that their service could be cut off due to nonpayment. Copies of those notices from some customers of those utilities have been provided to the PRC. The names of those utilities were not made public in the meeting, and the PRC commissioners say the problem could be more widespread.
Commissioner Joseph Maestas, who represents District Three, drafted the motion approved by the commission on March 17. There were three parts to the motion.
The first part was that the commission would draft a letter to all the utilities reminding them of the Feb. 3 order’s requirements and asking for information such as copies of disconnection notices that have gone out. The second part was sending out a press release to provide information to customers. The final part was an order clarifying that disconnections sent out cannot indicate a date for disconnections prior to May 5 or Aug. 12, depending on the type of utility. The order would also instruct the PRC staff to investigate improper notices and how widespread the practice has been.
Commenters say notices scared people into taking extreme measures
Several representatives of advocacy groups spoke during the public comment section about the disconnection notices.
Tammy Fiebeklorn, a representative of Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, expressed concerns about the impact these notices have on low-income families.
“These notices were sent out in English only to some of the lowest-income neighborhoods in the state,” she said.
She read one of the notices out loud, which stated that service would be disconnected if payment was not received by March 16. In addition, the PRC has seen a copy of a disconnect notice stating service could be cut off on March 10.
“The threatening language did as the utilities intended,” she said. “It scared people into paying their bills by taking out payday loans, skipping essentials like food or borrowing from friends and family. They believed, as anyone reading this notice would, that their service would be cut off if they did not pay in full.”
Meanwhile, Sister Joan Brown, executive director of Interfaith Power and Light, said her organization has received reports of robocalls in the southeast section of New Mexico threatening disconnections for nonpayment..
House Bill 206 aims to address unpaid utility debt
The New Mexico Legislature is considering a measure to assist people who have been unable to pay their utility bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a press release from the nonprofits Southwest Energy Efficiency Project and Prosperity Works, more than 57,000 families in New Mexico are at risk of having their electricity cut off, and more than 27,000 families could lose their gas service because they have not been able to pay their bills.
The Utility Affordability and Relief Act, or House Bill 206, passed the House of Representatives last week by a 39-31 vote. It went to the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee on March 12 and cleared that committee with a 7-3 vote. The bill now heads to the Senate Finance Committee.
Fiebelkorn and other commenters urged the PRC to support the bill.
"Howe Bill 206 is the answer that New Mexico needs to help our low-income neighbors get out from under the mountain of utility debt they've accumulated through no fault of their own," she said.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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