Mainers who have fallen behind on their utility bills during the pandemic will have to start making payment arrangements or risk having their service cut off following a vote by the Maine Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday to end its emergency ban on disconnections as of Nov. 1.

But residential customers of natural gas companies and electric distribution utilities such as Central Maine Power and Versant Power have a cushion. Regulators ruled that the moratorium will transition into the annual winter disconnection period, which essentially forbids those providers from shutting off service during the heating season, from Nov. 1 to April 15.

The ruling also affects water utilities such as the Portland Water District and telephone service providers such as Consolidated Communications, neither of which are subject to the winter shutoff restrictions.

All utilities will be required to give 30 days’ notice to affected customers prior to any disconnection activity. The PUC plans to prepare sample language for utilities to use in such notices.

Versant Power and other utilities had asked the commission to alert residents of the changes via a clearly worded news release. Versant pointed out that it’s difficult to know for certain when a customer could be affected, the company said, and to send an update to all customers via direct mail would cost between $60,000 and $70,000, a cost borne by all its customers.

The ruling comes six months after the PUC issued a blanket order telling utilities not to shut off service until further notice. The ban mirrored actions nationwide, as utilities halted service disruptions and set up flexible payment plans to help customers dealing with the sudden economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, which included record layoffs and business closings.

In its ruling Tuesday, the PUC also prohibited utilities from charging late fees on debt accumulated during the emergency moratorium provided that customers abide by a payment plan.

The ruling was made by PUC Chairman Philip Bartlett and Commissioner Randall Davis. Commissioner Bruce Williamson didn’t attend.

Utilities were generally pleased with the ruling based on comments they filed prior to Tuesday’s deliberations. But a trade group representing phone companies wanted the ban lifted even sooner. The Telecommunications Association of Maine said it is concerned that mounting “bad debt,” which cannot be recovered, could lead to higher rates for all customers in the future.

On the other side, the Maine Public Advocate’s Office, which represents utility customers before the PUC, maintained that the ban should be extended at least until next April.

“The economic crisis associated with the COVID-19 public health emergency is acute and continues to escalate,” it wrote in filings, citing unemployment claims and other data to argue that conditions now actually are worse than when the ban was first put in place.

Following the ruling, Deputy Public Advocate Drew Landry issued a statement in which he said his office was hopeful that the order doesn’t “create a window” during which utilities will be permitted to disconnect customers without prior PUC authorization.

“The (Office of Public Advocate) disagrees with the suggestion made during deliberations that the economic situation has improved since the emergency moratorium was implemented,” Landry said. “Funding for supplemental unemployment benefits and the Paycheck Protection Program has largely been exhausted, leaving those still suffering from the economic effects of the pandemic more vulnerable than they were earlier this year.”

But in trying to strike a balance, the PUC said growing debt will harm customers in the long run.

“The commission weighed the multifaceted interests of customers and utilities in making this decision,” Bartlett said. “The emergency moratorium was implemented to assist customers in the early days of the pandemic, when schools and businesses were being shuttered and people were ordered to stay at home. Continuing the blanket moratorium indefinitely would prevent some utility customers from accessing federal CARES Act funds to help them with their bills and could drive up costs for all utility customers over the long term.”

Ending the moratorium in November, the commission said, will help customers limit the money they’ll owe as their debt grows without repayment arrangements. It also could reduce the likelihood that utilities will seek higher rates in the future to recover the cost of lost revenue and added collection activities. That would push bad debt expenses onto all ratepayers.

Pandemic-induced rate hikes are a real possibility, utilities signaled to the PUC last spring. In late April, the commission opened an inquiry and ordered utilities to begin sending monthly data to help show how their accounts receivable and customer energy consumption compare with previous periods.

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