Up to 1 million Floridians with unpaid bills face October utility shutoffs

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Florida’s investor-owned utilities are ending voluntary agreements to not pull the plug on residential accounts for nonpayment but are offering pandemic assistance programs to help customers catch up on electricity bills that, in at least 1.25 million cases, were in arrears this month.

Those assistance programs, however, likely won’t help up to 1 million Floridians who could be without power within the coming two weeks, warned Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law advocacy group.

In a Sept. 22 petition to the Florida Public Service Commission (FPSC), Earthjustice requested a 90-day moratorium on such cutoffs. The FPSC has 30 days to act on the petition.

Earthjustice’s petition cited the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended guidelines, which call for halting evictions and utility cutoffs for the rest of the year.

Earthjustice was among the 13 groups in the Connected in Crisis Coalition that urged Gov. Ron DeSantis in a letter Friday to address burgeoning housing and utility crises that vulnerable Floridians face.

“The working poor, Black Floridians and immigrant communities are disproportionately at risk,” the groups said in a news release. “Housing and utility security for the most marginalized Floridians is not only a moral imperative, but critical to the health, safety and economic well-being of our entire state.”

The letter urged DeSantis to place a moratorium on utility disconnections, fees and fines through June 1, 2021, and to extend mortgage and eviction relief through the end of the year.

It also asked DeSantis to “allocate direct financial assistance for rent, mortgages and utilities.”

DeSantis’ thrice-extended moratorium on evictions expires Thursday. The governor previously has waited until the last moment to add another 30 days to the eviction/foreclosure ban.

The National Energy Assistance Directors Association said 22 states and the District of Columbia have moratoriums on utility cutoffs. Florida is not one of those states.

The four largest investor-owned utilities that provide power to 7.5 million households across Florida voluntarily have stopped cutting off power for nonpayment since March.

Three utilities – Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric Co. and Florida Power & Light – recently announced plans to resume shutting off customers’ power for nonpayment. All offer payment plans.

In filings with the FPSC, the three and Gulf Power Co. said about 1.25 million of their combined 7.5 million customers have fallen behind on their bills during the pandemic.

Gulf Power Co. has not announced a date for resuming shutoffs and is proposing the FPSC allow it to charge all its customers for costs incurred during the pandemic, including unpaid customer bills.

Duke Energy Florida said in a statement last week 63,800 of its 1.8 million customers are 60 or more days late on payments and subject to disconnection, although the company has cut the cord on only 17 residential customers since March and will “pause” shutoffs through October.

“Many of our customers are facing unprecedented adversity during this pandemic,” Duke Energy spokesperson Ana Gibbs said. “We want to be thoughtful and provide extended payment options to avoid power interruptions during the pandemic.”

Tampa Electric spokesperson Cherie Jacobs said it has disconnected about 110 nonresidential accounts since March but no household accounts and should remain “minimal due to the multiple forms of assistance available and flexible payment extensions.”

The goal is “to not disconnect anyone’s service,” Jacobs said in a statement. “Tampa Electric is committed to keep doing the right thing for our customers.”

For bill assistance, Tampa Electric customers can visit tampaelectric.com. Duke Energy customers can go to dukeenergyupdates.com, and TECO Peoples Gas customers can visit peoplesgas.com.

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