Lights out is looming for tens of thousands of Oregonians who are behind on their utility bills.
It's been more than a year since the Oregon Public Utility Commission temporarily suspended the state's power and natural gas utilities from shut-offs due to nonpayment — citing the economic uncertainty spurred by the onrush of the novel coronavirus.
As recently as April 2021, more than 87,000 electric and gas customers had racked up past-due balances extending more than 90 days — with the total amount owed at $67 million, a 892% increase over pre-pandemic levels. Typically, the number of customers more than 90 days past due is closer to 37,000.
That's a slight decrease from the beginning of the year, when 91,000 bill-shirking customers had racked up $76.3 million in residential debt.
As of April 21, another 50,000 customers are 60 days behind on their bills and 129,000 haven't cut a check in a month, said Kandi Young, a spokeswoman for the commission.
Those who haven't paid up are set to be cast into darkness as soon as Aug. 1, when disconnections can officially resume. The first 15-day late notices will be sent out July 16, according to the PUC.
"Utility service cannot be provided at no cost, and customers with past due bills need to begin engaging now with utilities and assistance providers to get help and connect to payment options," said Megan Decker, chair of the commission.
The return to the old rules will effect customers of Portland General Electric (PGE), PacifiCorp, Idaho Power, NW Natural, Cascade Natural and Avista.
Help is available, however, as Oregon utilities have agreed to set aside 1% of their 2019 retail revenue — or roughly $39 million — for debt relief programs.
The commission says further rate-payer funded debt relief may be approved if "customer debt persist, so long as it is appropriately targeted." PUC also directed utilities to make assistance options prominent in disconnection notices, according to a news release.
"We have approved certain protections once the moratorium is lifted," said Decker. "Utilities are to make their best efforts not to disconnect customers who have taken steps with their utility service provider to participate in a utility debt relief program, to set up a time payment arrangement, to make partial payments, or who are actively seeking energy assistance from a partner organization."
Need help paying your bill?
Customers without the cash to pay their utility bill should contact their service provider directly.
A list of available debt relief programs is also available at: oregon.gov/puc/Pages/Consumer-Information-Center.aspx.
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