Struggling in the COVID-19 economy, customers wait as state and utility companies face March 15 deadline.

Special to TAPinto.net. This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

In less than two weeks, more than a half-million residential customers and over 91,000 commercial and industrial customers could be disconnected from electric, gas and water services if a moratorium on utility shut-offs is not extended.

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The looming crisis highlights yet another toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left more than 23,000 New Jerseyans dead, devastated segments of the economy, and forced 2 million people to file unemployment claims.

Stefanie Brand, the director of state’s Division of Rate Counsel, and other consumer advocates are calling for an extension of the nearly year-long moratorium on shut-offs, noting that state officials are currently working on a potential solution for how to deal with the growing cost of arrearages in utility bills.

“The financial damage is substantial and continues to grow,’’ Brand said in a petition filed Monday with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities seeking an extension beyond the current March 15 deadline. “A lot of businesses are really suffering.’’

This year began with customers owing more than $700 million on their gas, electric and water bills. All told, including those not facing an outright shut-off, more than 1.2 million gas, electric and water accounts were in arrears at the end of the year — mostly residential accounts, as well as 144,000 commercial and industrial accounts, according to the Rate Counsel petition.

There is little consensus on who will wind up paying. Will the money come from the utilities, their shareholders and all of their customers? Another open question is if any funds will be available from federal stimulus packages.

“We are still in a public health emergency and probably will remain so for the next several months,’’ said Evelyn Liebman, director of advocacy for AARP New Jersey. “We need to maintain these services, extend the moratorium, and expand assistance programs.’’

Neither the governor’s office nor the BPU responded to questions about whether the moratorium would be extended.

Utilities: We’ve acted in good faith

Tom Churchelow, president of the New Jersey Utilities Association, argued for an end to the moratorium and for the state instead to focus on fixing the underlying problem. He argued the investor-owned utilities have acted in good faith.

“It’s those utilities that are providing service without payment and bearing the risk, and this at a time when we are working to align with the important environmental goals of this administration and to create jobs,’’ Churchelow said.

Utility executives also note that not all of the customers who are not paying their bills are needy. “We have some indication that a large portion of customers who are in arrears may not be low-income customers,’’ he said.

Churchelow noted moratoriums have ended in other states without ill effects. His organization suggested addressing unresolved arrearages by forgiveness programs through expansion of the Universal Service Fund, a state program that helps customers who fall behind or have trouble in paying their utility bills. The state also needs to put more dollars into other customer-assistance programs, he said.

Brand agreed Trenton needs to find other funding sources to reduce the total amount of utility arrearages.

“The total numbers are simply too large for other ratepayers to pay or for the utilities to absorb,’’ she said. Federal funds or stimulus legislation may be available, and other funding sources need to be explored, according to Brand.

Adding the losses to overall utility bills will just force more people into financial distress, she maintained.

“Attempting to recover the full cost of the utilities’ uncollectibles from customers who may now be able to pay their bills will raise rates and likely force more customers to fall behind,’’ Brand said. “There is so many people hurting that It leads to so many difficult choices.’’

To read this article in the original format, click: Unpaid utility bills in NJ exceed $700M as end of shut-off moratorium looms