Utilities are resisting a push by the Legislature to enact a law prohibiting them from disconnecting service until six months beyond the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, saying it’s enough that they’ve already agreed to a moratorium through mid-March.

A bill that has advanced in the Senate, S2325, also prohibits electric, gas, water or sewer utilities or authorities from increasing rates and requires them to offer payment plans at least two years long with no down payment required.

Thomas Churchelow, president of the New Jersey Utilities Association, said concerns about overdue utility bills will be addressed through a Board of Public Utilities proceeding now underway and the issue require an act of the Legislature. He said utilities agreed to a moratorium that was originally in effect until mid-October and has been extended to March 15.

“We did not push back on that despite concerns about growing arrearages, but we must caution that the moratorium cannot go on indefinitely, in particular without parameters to determine need,” Churchelow said.

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Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said the BPU had told him in September that there were 547,000 accounts with balances that were 30 to 59 days past due as of August. Total overdue balances owed to BPU-regulated utilities for residential customers was over $354 million, he said, up about 53% from the $231 million in August 2019.

“There’s no utility company that’s going to lose money under this bill. Every individual is still required to make their payment. This bill does not say that payments are waived. It doesn’t say it’s forgiven at all,” Singleton said. “It’s a matter of when those payments happen.”

Singleton said he supports tightening up eligibility for and participation in the extension to prevent people who don’t need the break from taking advantage of the moratorium. And he said people who aren’t paying bills now must do so eventually, perhaps through a payment plan, or risk a shutoff.

“You are still responsible for this payment,” Singleton said. “So again, no one should leave this table thinking that anyone is getting a break here. They’re getting a delay until the utilities get their money. I don’t think any of the utilities are going to be in the bread line any time soon. I suspect some of their customers might.”

Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, D-Camden, said the money is going to have to be repaid eventually so people should pay what they can now, even if it’s $10 a month.

“You’re going to have to pay this eventually,” Cruz-Perez said. “Just make any type of payment. Anything you can send is better than nothing instead of waiting to get a $2,000 bill when this is over.”

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Churchelow said more accounts are overdue but that fewer people are calling to inquire about assistance programs because they aren’t receiving shutoff notices. He said as a result, customers are probably missing out on assistance and forgiveness programs now in place.

“If you do have a number of bills and you’re having financial struggles and you’re prioritizing your bills, I think you’re less likely to call the entity that you don’t have to pay,” he said. “You know there’s a law in place or some kind of moratorium, some kind of bar from the company making you pay.”

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