Following 12 hours of testimony from a broad array of stakeholders late last week, the Maryland Public Service Commission voted Monday to extend the state’s moratorium on utility service shutoffs for an extra month, through Oct. 1.
Four of the commissioners voted for the motion, offered by PSC Chairman Jason M. Stanek. A fifth commissioner, Michael T. Richard, abstained, saying he hadn’t had time to fully digest the motion and preferred a proposal from the Office of People’s Counsel to extend the moratorium indefinitely.
“A lot of this package was cooked over the weekend,” Richard said.
Stanek cast his proposal as a balance between protecting the needs of consumers — many of whom have been hammered financially by the COVID-19 pandemic — and the needs of utilities that have also suffered from the economic downturn.
“Solutions from a problem of this magnitude do not come easy,” he said.
In addition to extending the moratorium on service shutoffs until Oct. 1, the measure adopted by the PSC also:
• Requires utilities to supply residential ratepayers with a 45-day notice that service will be terminated. Residential customers in arrears would have 45 days from receipt of a notice to work out a payment plan with their utility or to apply for energy assistance programs. Customers who take either action would not have service disconnected.
• Requires utilities to offer a 12-month repayment plan for consumers who are in arrears — and a 24-month repayment for low-income ratepayers whose payments are in arrears.
• Decrees that no down-payment is required by consumers who enter into a repayment agreement with a utility.
• Decrees that negotiations between a utility and a consumer over a repayment plan cannot be cut 0ff if the consumer has been in arrears in the past.
Stanek praised certain utility companies for already showing flexibility and compassion toward their customers and directed other utilities that have not reached out to struggling customers and offered repayment plans to do so immediately.
He called out Washington Gas for communicating with consumers with “a personal touch,” and added, “That’s exactly what we want and exactly what we need from Maryland utilities.”
Commissioners noted that the state’s Office of Home Energy Programs has about $170 million available to low-income Marylanders who need relief with their energy bills.
But Richard, who like all five current PSC commissioners was appointed by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) — and previously served as Hogan’s deputy chief of staff — called Stanek’s proposal “woefully inadequate.”
“This is no time for business as usual and throw Marylanders at the mercy of monopoly utilities,” he said.
Richard said he preferred a “sound, moderate and compassionate” proposal put forward by the Office of People’s Counsel — a unit of the state Attorney General’s office that represents consumers before the PSC on utility matters — that sought a longer-term moratorium on service shutoffs. More than 60 members of the General Assembly sent a letter to the PSC last month in support of the proposal.
“What we’re doing today is putting too much power in the hands of utilities,” Richard said.
Commissioner Anthony J. O’Donnell, a former Republican lawmaker, called the economic shutdown from COVID-19 “terrifying,” and compared what the state has just experienced financially to a Navy vessel narrowly missing a collision. Now that the collision has been avoided, he said, “it’s time to move forward again” — with an eye toward protecting both consumers and energy providers financially.
“These are matters that will affect people’s lives and the commerce of this state for a generation to come,” O’Donnell said.
While the PSC’s decision didn’t go as far as many lawmakers would have liked, one senior legislator said it was a step in the right direction.
“People are hurting right now,” said Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s). “Some do not even have money for food. I am glad that the PSC is giving them some protection.”
Information on energy assistance programs can be found online at the following sites:
• Office of Home Energy Programs in the Maryland Department of Human Services (https://dhs.maryland.gov/office-of-home-energy-programs/) or call 800-332-6347
• Fuel Fund of Maryland (https://fuelfundmaryland.org) or call 410-235-9080
• Maryland 211 (https://211md.org/211provider-utility-assistance), call 2-1-1 or text My211MD to 898-211
• Maryland Office of People’s Counsel (http://www.opc.maryland.gov/Consumer-Corner)
By Josh Kurtz and Bruce DePuyt