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There is a moratorium on utility shut offs in Rhode Island between Nov. 1 and April 15. Families who don’t pay anything toward their gas or electric bills during those months get a temporary reprieve, but they may also have a whopper of a bill to pay at the end.
At the April meeting of the Basic Needs Network in Westerly, several of the network’s social service agency members reported increased requests for help with utility bills as the April 15 deadline looms. Utility bills increased during the cold winter, and a few agency representatives noted that some clients saw their utility bills double.
But there are options. Camilo Vivieros, from the George Wiley Center of Pawtucket, spoke to the Basic Needs Network Tuesday about the rights their clients have after receiving a termination notice.
About 20,000 to 30,000 people in Rhode Island experience a utility shutoff each year, Vivieros said.
“That’s very big, comparatively, to other states,” he noted.
Electricity from National Grid was shut off to 10,230 of its 480,000 customers between April 1, 2013, and the end of February, said National Grid spokesman David Graves, During that same time frame, 8,410 of 245,000 gas customers were shut off. That’s down from a high of 22,036 electricity customers and 12,193 gas customers terminated between April 1, 2010, and March 30, 2011, said Graves. He credits the drop to improved company outreach when customers fall behind, and a “slightly improving economy.”
But for those Rhode Island customers facing termination, there is one opportunity to utilize the 2011 Henry Shelton Act, which is a combination of payment plan and forgiveness. “This is the best payment plan for a certain percentage of people,” Vivieros said, “but it’s not a total solution.”
To qualify, utility customers must have an income low enough to qualify for assistance but high enough to make the payments. After making a 10 percent down payment on the arrears, 40 percent of the remaining debt is spread into 36 monthly payments. If the customer successfully completes those payments, in addition to keeping up with regular payments, the remaining 60 percent is forgiven at the end of the 36 months. But if there are too many missed payments, the entire amount is due.
Because residents can only do this once, Vivieros recommended that the arrears be a substantial amount, and not just a few hundred dollars.
Vivieros also noted that Rhode Island residents have the right to appeal termination notices to the state Division of Public Utilities. After receiving a termination notice, a utility customer should first contact the company and make what he or she considers a reasonable offer. If the offer is refused, the next step is to request an informal hearing from the Division of Public Utilities, followed by a formal hearing if the results of the informal hearing are not satisfactory. At the hearing, customers should explain their financial situation and why they cannot pay. The utility company cannot shut off service until after the division makes its decision on the final hearing, which typically takes around 30 days.
The George Wiley Center is also trying to convince the state agency to extend the moratorium date to May 1, Vivieros said. There will be a public hearing on the proposal scheduled for Friday in Warwick. National Grid has already extended the moratorium to May 1 for certain customers, Graves said. These are residents undergoing a severe financial hardship who also have a child under the age of two, an elderly person or a handicapped person in the family.
For more information on the George Wiley Center, visit georgewileycenter.org.
Follow Leslie Rovetti on Twitter at @STreporter