Despite a momentary surge of panic, perhaps, that disconnect notice from your local power company this summer and fall wasn’t much cause for concern. With COVID-19, the state prevented electric utilities from cutting customers’ service due to nonpayment.

But that’s about to change, though the state has imposed new rules on electric utilities and other regulated utilities for turning off the power and is offering assistance to customers still facing difficulties paying their bills.

Vermont’s moratorium on disconnecting electricity customers behind on their payments officially ended Oct. 15, almost seven months after it was put in place to help people struggling financially amid the pandemic.

Now, utilities across the state must decide how to move forward with collecting unpaid bills — or possibly disconnecting — hundreds, if not thousands, of customers.

Some utilities, like Morrisville Water & Light and Hardwick Electric, sent out sporadic disconnect notices over the last seven months, as they were sometimes unsure if the moratorium would be lifted or extended. But each time those notices were mailed, the Vermont Public Utility Commission subsequently extended the moratorium, rendering them moot.

Morrisville sent out a large number of notices in July. Hardwick did the same in September.

“It was a moratorium on disconnecting, not sending out notices,” said Penny Jones, Morrisville & Water Light general manager. “We’ve been letting people know they had past-due balances but that we weren’t disconnecting them or charging late fees.”

These practices, however, sometimes confused customers.

“Since the Public Utility Commission had not ruled on extending the moratorium yet, we sent out disconnect notices,” said Hardwick Electric General Manager Mike Sullivan, noting that many other utilities across the state did the same.

Each time, an extension to the moratorium voided the disconnect notices. But not the monies owed.

Other utilities, such as Vermont Electric Cooperative in Johnson, have been sending out disconnect notices every month since the spring, but noting that customers wouldn’t actually be disconnected.

“We actually just put an insert into our bills, saying there was a moratorium, but we wanted people to understand the status of their bills,” said Andrea Cohen, the director of government affairs and customer relations at the cooperative.

With winter approaching, the pandemic still raging and some customers racking up substantial bills, utilities are now hoping to create longterm payback plans for some customers and are directing others to seek state aid to get caught up.

Disconnect notices sent

Sullivan said Hardwick Electric sent out 457 disconnect notices in September, ahead of a possible expiration of the moratorium. The total was that high, in part, because staff wasn’t opening the mail every day — a 72-hour hold on all mail was in place as part of the utility’s COVID-19 safety protocols. That hold meant some customers who paid on time received disconnect notices, because the utility hadn’t yet processed the payments.

“It did result in more-than-normal delinquent amounts,” said Leah Pettengill, the head of customer service at Hardwick Electric. The utility has since discontinued the practice of holding its mail for that long, Sullivan said, so only customers behind on their bills should receive disconnect notices going forward.

The process of disconnecting customers is a lengthy one. So when it looked like the moratorium would expire in August, Morrisville Water and Light, for example, sent out official disconnect notices in July to customers behind on payments.

“We have to give customers 14 days from the date of the notice to when they’re actually disconnected,” Jones said. “We didn’t want to wait until Aug. 1 and then send them out,” to let customers who weren’t caught up on their bills where they stood.

Other utilities employed the same strategy.

Jones said the disconnection letters reminded customers about their overdue bills, many of whom then called in to settle up.

“Some people do wait to receive a disconnect notice before making payments,” Jones said.

How to get help

Along with working to create long-term payback plans for customers, the Public Utility Commission has now said utilities must detail a customer’s options for paying their overdue bills or how to get financial assistance now that the moratorium has expired.

Many utilities, including Morrisville Water & Light and Vermont Electric Coop, have made the updates to their notices.

Morrisville sent out a batch — about 115 — last week, Jones said, and those notices had disconnect dates of Nov. 19.

Hardwick also got back into the disconnection business earlier this month, but on top of the new state-imposed protocols the utility’s board of directors wants to reduce the interest charged on late payments, along with coming up with long-term plans to help customers “get back on track,” Sullivan said.

“We are sending out disconnects in accordance with the special COVID guidelines/procedures in the next couple days,” he added in an email on Nov. 5. The co-op was continuing its practice of sending out monthly disconnect notices to customers with unpaid bills, but now those notices don’t include a note saying customers won’t actually be disconnected and instead include information mandated by the state on how those customers can get aid and get caught back up.

Some Morrisville Water & Light customers have already been taking advantage of the state’s arrearage assistance program, which helps Vermonters pay for past-due utility bills due to income loss from COVID-19.

As of Nov. 2, Jones said Morrisville had received roughly $16,000 from the state fund.

Jones expects to hear back from more customers when the next round of notices reaches people. And, she’s encouraging that.

“You need to reach out. We can help you with a long-term payment arrangement, arrearage assistance. Get a plan,” she said.

Information about the Vermont Public Utility Commission’s arrearage assistance program, which expires at the end of the month, is available at bit.ly/3jZX2IP.

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