NJUA’S CHURCHELOW STRESSES IMPORTANCE OF ARP FUNDS TO HELP PAY ARREARAGES & OF CUSTOMER ASSISTANCE PROGRAMS
Provides Remarks During BPU Quarterly Public Meeting
Trenton — New Jersey Utilities Association (NJUA) President and CEO Thomas R. Churchelow, Esq., delivered remarks at today’s New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) Quarterly Public Meeting on the importance of dedicating American Rescue Plan dollars to help pay down utility arrearages that have built up during the pandemic. Churchelow also echoed comments from BPU President Joe Fiordaliso urging customers facing past due bills to reach out to their utility regarding payment assistance programs. He also reemphasized points made BPU Commissioner Mary-Anna Holden regarding investor-owned water company customers having equal access to a permanent fund set up for low-income water customers.
Churchelow’s full remarks are below.
“I am here today to speak on behalf of the New Jersey Utilities Association. The NJUA is the statewide trade association for New Jersey’s investor-owned utilities providing essential electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water, and wastewater services. We really appreciate this opportunity and are pleased to see the establishment of these quarterly meetings that give stakeholders and the public at large a voice, particularly at this critical time.
“We’d like to take this opportunity today to ask that you leverage your influence with the Governor’s office and other relevant state entities to ensure that there is dedicated a sufficient portion of the American Rescue Plan funds to help pay down utility arrearages that have accumulated over the past nearly two years now.
“As President Fiordaliso noted earlier, there are more than $500 million in utility arrearages pending in New Jersey. That number remains high, although we are very hopeful as we anticipate that a greater number of customers will engage with their utility to get into assistance programs and deferred payment arrangements now that the moratorium on shutoffs for non-payments has lifted. And with that I want to echo President Fiordaliso’s urging at the start of the meeting – for customers facing past due bills – please reach out to your utility. They are eager to work with you to help get you access to assistance programs and into enhanced deferred payment programs that were described in detail earlier in the meeting.
“And while we can now work more effectively to get customers into these assistance programs and while we are confident customers will continue to pay what they can afford towards their owed bills, the utilities do have concerns that a large amount of utility services provided during the COVID-19 pandemic may remain uncompensated even after the late stages of the recovery, so it is critical we maximize available federal funding as these unresolved costs could ultimately have downstream effects on utility costs. And I want to take this opportunity to note that since the beginning of the pandemic and throughout, NJUA and its member companies have been a committed partner in fighting COVID-19 in our state.
“The utilities worked closely with the state to provide crucial PPE from their own stockpiles and donated millions of dollars in an effort to relieve many of the harmful effects of this pandemic. Currently, the utilities are doing everything in their power to resolve these arrearages by working alongside BPU and DCA to link customers with utility assistance funding and ultimately relieve customers of their unpaid bills and will continue to make that effort.
“Utilities have gone above and beyond to communicate with customers by leveraging direct calls, emails, text messages, digital and social media marketing, door hangers and customer service technologies like LiveAgent. The utilities are using a multi-pronged approach to connect and guide customers to programs that can resolve their unpaid bills.
“Even with these efforts, there unfortunately have remained relatively low take rates on assistance so again please contact your utility about assistance and enhanced deferred payment arrangements. And I note again for our decisionmakers at the state level that additional funding from American Rescue Plan dollars would provide certainty and resolution for customers, and for the utilities. We also are pleased that the Board continues to work with DCA and utilities to streamline this effort and urge continuing of that work so that funds are directed to customer accounts having arrearages with minimal administrative challenge for the customer or the utility.
“Additionally, we hope that you provide special consideration for our investor-owned water and wastewater utilities, as they are facing many of the same issues as every other utility with respect to arrearages. However, they do not have similar protections to government-owned water and wastewater utilities, say through the power of taxation government entities have and development of cost recovery mechanisms that exist in other sectors are still in the works. And so it’s also crucial, as Commissioner Holden emphasized earlier, that we have a permanent fund for low-income water customers and we would urge with that that the investor-owned water company customers have equal access to those funds. Rather than having to socialize costs and write off uncollected debt I know we’re all interested in putting that money to improving water system infrastructure.
“Guidance from the U.S Department of the Treasury outlines that these funds can be used to deliver ‘aid to unemployed workers and job training, as well as aid to households facing food, housing, or other financial insecurity.’ We hope that you consider these utility arrearages as a symptom of financial insecurity and will use these funds to resolve these unpaid debts.
“As for revisions to the customer bill of rights being implemented through new legislation along with changes to that document that may come in the coming months, we respectfully ask that you provide the utilities with sufficient lead time of at least one month if not sooner before requiring any change to bill inserts. Of course, that’s because we don’t want a scenario where we have two conflicting inserts and in addition changing the process mid-stream or at the 11th hour to revise an insert can result in significant costs which are ultimately passed on to customers.
“That concludes my comments today. We will provide more extensive written comments in very short order and we’re happy to continue the discussion offline as well. NJUA is always happy to assist in coordinating contacts and discussions amongst utility members and the BPU. Thank you.”
The New Jersey Utilities Association is the statewide trade association for investor-owned utilities that provide essential water, wastewater, electric, natural gas and telecommunications services to New Jersey residents and businesses 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. NJUA has provided a forum for the exchange of ideas and a unified voice in the public policy arena for its members since 1915. For further information on NJUA, please visit www.njua.com or follow us on Twitter @NJUtilities.