Help is available to those who need it
The COVID pandemic has had a significant impact on the economic health of the country, and Campbell County hasn’t been spared when it comes to lost income and other financial hardships.
To alleviate some of the burden, the Wyoming Public Service Commission (PSC) joined 24 other states in placing a moratorium on utilities shutoffs, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA) website. Wyoming’s moratorium covers electricity, gas, water and telecom services, and, unlike some states, has no firm expiration date.
NEADA Executive Director Mark Wolfe said Thursday that Wyoming’s order was tied to the emergency declaration that came from the Governor’s desk on March 13.
“If you do not pay your bill, the shutoff protection is really just a way to delay payment,” Wolfe said. “The bill still accrues to your account.”
A representative with the Wyoming PSC said that the term ‘moratorium’ as defined by NEADA isn’t exactly accurate. There is no order to specifically prevent utilities providers from cutting off service for non-payment, he clarified by phone Friday. Instead, the order simply removed the requirement that the PSC be involved when changes are made to billing practices. For the duration of the emergency, he noted, utility companies are free to suspend cutoffs and late fees without having to be approved by the PSC.
Gillette Finance Director Michelle Henderson said Thursday that even though the city was under no obligation to change their practices, because of COVID, they decided to give Gillette citizens a break.
“The city provides utility service to our residents instead of purchasing them from an outside source,” Henderson said. “As such, we aren’t governed by the PSC. But we decided to suspend late fees and cutoffs anyway.”
The city recognized that many residents were struggling due to layoffs, furloughs and reduced work hours and decided to adopt a no-cutoff, no-late-fee policy for all utilities between March 16 and Aug. 1 for customers with outstanding or late payments bills,
No action was taken against residents or businesses who didn’t pay during the city’s grace period, Henderson said, though many residents continued to pay. Businesses impacted by the pandemic were also afforded that courtesy, she noted.
“Even before the pandemic, we’ve always tried to work with people who were struggling to pay their utilities for one reason or another,” Henderson said.
The city approached cutoffs as they do during winter months, she added, when they don’t cut off utilities for non-payment when the average temperature is below freezing. The bill accrues, but the city delays action until the temperature rises.
The city resumed cutoffs and late fees Aug. 1, according to Henderson, and businesses and residents who had delayed payment of their bills were offered the chance to spread out their balances over a six-month period. She wasn’t sure exactly how many customers took advantage of the offer, as the city is only a month into the process of resuming cutoffs. On Thursday, the city had 15 customers slated for cutoff if their bills weren’t paid up. Just over 600 accounts went delinquent during the period in which cutoffs were suspended, per Henderson.
Kris Jones, utility services supervisor for Gillette, said Friday that there are currently 82 customers on payment plans through the utilities department. There’s no way to know how many of these were due to the furlough period. The city is always willing to work with people who need assistance, Jones said. Customer Service can be contacted through the city’s website.
Gillette Communications Manager Geno Palazzari said residents who are still having trouble paying their utility bills can seek assistance from the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP) administered by the Wyoming Department of Family Services. The program is federally funded, according to their website, and exists specifically to help those in need pay their heating bills during winter months. The Salvation Army, Palazzari said, can also offer resources to people who are struggling to keep the lights on.