Now that the brutal summer heat is behind us, a moratorium on electric utility shutoffs has ended, and Arizona’s utility companies will once again begin cutting off service to customers who don’t pay their bills.
Regulators at the Arizona Corporation Commission enacted the moratorium preventing power shutoffs in June, after the Phoenix New Times reported a 72-year-old Sun City West woman died in 2018 after Arizona Public Service (APS) cut off her power on a 107-degree day because she was behind on her bills.
The moratorium was a temporary measure to prevent fatalities from Arizona’s scorching summer heat, but regulators are now developing permanent rules to govern shutoffs in hot weather.
At the same time, the commission has also come under fire for failing to ensure a smooth transition out of the moratorium and consumer advocates have expressed concern that customers with sizable balances will struggle to pay them off and have their service disconnected.
APS says 88,000 customers are behind on their bills and owe $30.6 million in summer utility bills — three times more than the total delinquent dollars from last year, when there was no moratorium.
But the company said it does not plan to immediately shut off service to those customers and will instead enroll any customer with a $75 balance or higher in a four-month payment plan. Should customers fail to make those payments, the company will then cut off their service.
“Customers will need to stay current both on their payment arrangement and any new charges, and I can’t emphasize enough the importance of them reaching out,” Annette Carrier, APS program manager, told the Arizona Republic.
APS has been contacting customers by mail, doorhanger, and phone and encouraging them to pay their bills, an effort that has reduced the number of delinquent customers by about 11,000 in recent weeks, according to the Republic.
Carrier also told the Republic that the company wants to help customers who might need more time to pay their debt.
While APS has enacted these repayment plans, the Phoenix New Times reports that other companies like the Trico Electric Cooperative and Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative — which together serve more than 100,000 customers in Southern Arizona — indicated that they planned to start disconnecting customers immediately.
The Arizona Corporation Commission pushed back, saying the companies could not simply disconnect customers on Oct. 16, when the moratorium was lifted.
“You would have to follow your disconnection process and procedures, and whenever you disconnect someone, you are required to give them written notice,” Maureen Scott, an attorney with the commission, told Trico CEO Vincent Nitido.
“There’s a period of time given in that notice before you disconnect. You would not be able to ignore those rules,” Scott said.
Elijah Abinah, the head of the Corporation Commission’s utilities division, also said it wasn’t appropriate to cut service to customers this week and indicated he would “file something” to require Sulpher Springs Valley to automatically enroll customers in payment plans. But according to the Phoenix New Times, Abinah said he would do that next week — after disconnections may already have begun.
The debate over when utility companies’ are able to disconnect customers for nonpayment underscores one of the many challenges facing the commission as they determine how to make the moratorium permanent.
Regulators are also struggling to land on the exact temperature at which shutoffs would be banned. Corporation Commission staff initially proposed banning shutoffs when the outside temperature exceeds 95 degrees, but utility companies successfully lobbied them to raise that threshold to 105 degrees.
Consumer groups like the AARP say 105 is too high and are pushing for the 95 degree proposal instead, while other consumer activists have pointed out that because there are certain electrical districts and utilities not regulated by the commission, a state-wide law to ensure a uniform disconnection policy would be beneficial.
The commission is still finalizing its rules, but APS said the final rules should “recognize that ultimately any unpaid costs for electricity and services provided will be borne by all customers.”