RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- As a new moratorium on utility shut-offs takes effect, some Virginians will also have their past due bills canceled.
Gov. Ralph Northam signed a revised budget on Wednesday, activating an indefinite ban on water and electricity disconnections. The longer-term solution comes after a patchwork of moratorium extensions expired at the beginning of October, temporarily leaving some customers vulnerable.
State Corporation Commission Spokesperson Ken Schrad said he doesn’t know of any utility companies the SCC regulates that resumed shut-offs during the temporary lapse in protections, though he’s heard anecdotal examples of local water authorities cutting off service. Schrad said the latest moratorium was expanded by the General Assembly to apply to these providers as well.
In addition to those protections, Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said customers with bills more than 60 days past due will be prioritized for debt forgiveness. If there is money left over after that, she said more customers will be considered.
Unlike other COVID-19 relief programs, Schrad said people cannot apply to the state directly. Instead, utility companies will request funds from the SCC and distribute them to customers thereafter.
McClellan said individual utilities can set up additional eligibility criteria, such as requiring customers to declare that their financial hardship was caused by COVID-19. With this in mind, she said the best thing people can do is reach out to their provider directly to ask about relief.
“We didn’t want to have a ‘one size fits all’ for every customer situation so it is important that you call your utility and work out the best arrangements for you,” McClellan said. “We provided enough flexibility to help as many people as possible.”
It’s still unclear if the $100 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) underpinning the program will be enough for everyone in need.
Schrad said, in July 2020, Virginians owed more than $184 million in past due utility bills. Schrad said the SCC won’t have an updated number until companies submit requests for their share of funding. He said those are due by November 30th.
Schrad said the pot of $100 million is meant to cover every utility company except Dominion Energy, Virginia’s largest electricity provider. The General Assembly is requiring Dominion to use excess profits for debt forgiveness instead.
Rayhan Daudani, a spokesperson for Dominion, said the company plans to distribute $125 million in debt relief. He said more than 254,000 of their 2.5 million customers in Virginia are eligible.
Daudani said past due payments accumulated before September 30th will be cancelled. Debt acquired after that will still need to be paid by customers, he added.
Under the recently passed budget, McClellan said utilities are also required to offer a payment plan of up to 24 months for customers facing mounting debt once the ban on disconnections expires. She said the moratorium will end 60 days after the state of emergency does unless Gov. Northam decides to do so sooner.
To find out if you meet the criteria for debt forgiveness, reach out to Dominion’s customer service line