RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-Most Virginia utilities will soon be able to cut off service again. There’s more money available to have past due bills cancelled but it’s not available to everyone.
The General Assembly is continuing a ban on service disconnections for the most vulnerable Dominion Energy customers through March 1, 2022.
However, smaller water, gas, electric and wastewater providers can start cutting off services again after Aug. 30 when the state’s current moratorium expires.
State lawmakers approved $120 million in American Rescue Plan relief for residential utility customers in a newly passed budget plan. Accounts over 60 days in debt as of Aug. 31, 2021 are eligible, though this federal assistance is not available for Dominion Energy customers.
Utilities may require the customer to attest to financial hardship resulting directly or indirectly from the COVID-19 pandemic but that process may vary depending on the provider.
It’s not yet clear if that money will cover all of the debt that has accumulated in the Commonwealth, according to state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond).
“You know we hope so or at least that it will get us through until January when we start to do the budget for next year but I think it will help a lot of people,” McClellan said.
The budget bill directs the State Corporation Commission and the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to conduct a survey of utilities to assess how much debt there is and whether there is any unspent funding from an earlier pot of federal CARES Act funding. A report is due to the General Assembly and the Governor by November 1, 2021.
The rules are different for Dominion Energy, the largest electricity provider in Virginia. Certain customers will continue to be protected by a ban on service disconnections until March 1, 2022. The moratorium applies to those who…
- Previously received federal, state, nonprofit entity, or utility payment assistance at any time between January 1, 2019 and July 31, 2021
- Have a qualified medical account designation with the utility as of July 31, 2021
- Certified by the Virginia Department of Social Services as being a recipient of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC); or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits at any time between January 1, 2019 and July 31, 2021
“We’ve been supportive of lawmakers’ efforts to try to help our customers because we just know how difficult of a time this is right now,” said Dominion Energy Spokesperson Rayhan Daudani.
While Dominion will continue to offer payment assistance to qualifying customers, the company is no longer offering pandemic debt forgiveness. Daudani said they have already distributed $206 million in relief.
“We helped a lot of people out last year when the pandemic was at its peak. Now we want to make sure they get the financial assistance and payment plans so that they are back on top of those bills and not facing what might be a little bit of sticker shock,” Daudani said.
“You can still get on a payment plan right now where you can take up to two years to catch up on those past due bills with no interest, no late fees, no down payment and no hits on your credit report,” he continued.
McClellan said protections passed in a previous General Assembly session still require utilities to offer a payment plan of up to 24 months before shutting off service. She said that takes effect once the more sweeping moratorium expires at the end of the month.
The Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives (VMDAEC) oversees 13 electric cooperatives in the Commonwealth. VMDAEC Communications Vice President Steve Johnson estimates debt among their members totals $35 to $40 million.
Johnson said it’s not clear whether the ARPA funding will meet or exceed the need.
“I’d say it addresses the bulk of the need, understanding that those needs are changing as we speak,” Johnson said. “Will there be disconnections? I guess possibly but that is a last resort.”
Johnson said most of their members already have processes in place for contacting customers who are eligible for debt forgiveness. If you think you may qualify and you haven’t been notified, reach out to your provider.