Jolting year for electric company

The Office of Public Counsel supported power companies that waived late fees and halted disconnections and are offering long-term payment plans to help customers catch up on overdue bills. But those bills are coming due, either now or soon, for utility customers.

Utility companies statewide gave electric customers a break during the early day of the COVID-19 pandemic which caused scores of layoffs, furloughs and layoffs.

Many waived late fees and offered flexible payment schedules.

But now, some five months later, the bill is coming due.

The pandemic resulted in 600,000 electric customers in Florida to get behind in their electric bill payments and Citrus County is no exception.

WREC

David Lambert, spokesman with Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative (WREC), said the company returned to normal service about two-and-a-half weeks ago.

The cooperative in April suspended disconnection for non-payment allowing people a break from the economic shutdown. However, being a not-for-profit, the company couldn’t continue that because the burden was falling on other cooperative members, he said.

“We did not disconnect people for close to three months but it just got so large — the debt balances,” he said.

That balance ran into several million dollars, he said.

Lambert said WREC has been forced to shut off power to some, but the majority of people have complied.

“Out of about 2,000 people behind on bills, we had a couple hundred that became an issue,” he said. “We sent multiple notifications to let them know and most people — the majority of folks  were able to pay their bill.”

WREC has about 25,675 customers in Citrus County.

SECO

Kathryn Gloria, spokeswoman with Sumter Electric Cooperative (SECO), said for the past five months, her company provided flexibility and understanding for members struggling to pay bills.

Early in the crisis, the not-for-profit cooperative waived late fees and offered flexible payment arrangements to members who requested additional time to pay.

“Understandably, the number of members unable to pay their bills continues to climb as unemployment and economic uncertainty remain high,” Gloria said.

Since early March, the cooperative has paid for millions of dollars in energy costs for members who have already consumed the product but have not rendered payment, she said.

As of Thursday, July 30, Florida said SECO has not disconnected a single account for nonpayment since just before the COVID-19 state of emergency was declared.

“These types of concessions come with a hefty price tag, and the not-for-profit cooperative must resume normal business practices soon,” she said.

Last week, she said SECO began another communications campaign asking those with past due balances to take action with one of three options: render payment for the past due balance, enter into a repayment agreement, or secure a pledge from a social service agency.

SECO has about 15,260 accounts in Citrus County.

Duke Energy

Duke Energy Florida spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said the company “has been proactively working with customers who are accumulating past-due balances on their utility bills, offering payment plans to mitigate potentially more significant financial challenges in the future.”

“However, some customers are currently not paying any portion of their bill, building up a large balance that will be harder to pay off later,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs urges customers to contact the company to explore payment options and financial assistance programs.

Duke will return to standard billing and payment practices in mid-August. However, the earliest disconnections for non-payment under regular credit and notice timelines will not begin until Sept. 1 for customers, the company said.

Duke statewide had about 150,000 delinquent residential accounts, collectively owing almost $18 million, according to a news release.

The company in March halted disconnections and suspended late fees, waived debit- and credit-card fees and stretched out payment arrangements over six months, up from three months.

“Many of our customers are very behind on bills, and we want to make disconnection the last resort for these customers,” said Lesley Quick, vice president of customer care for Duke.

Quick also said “right now, customers don't really have an incentive or motive to make a payment or set themselves up for payment arrangements.”

About 15,000 Duke customers have taken the extended payment option. Duke has 47,500 Citrus County customers.

Balancing feelings and finances

While the overall number of customers late in making payments has shown some improvement from an initial peak of the crisis in April, utility officials told the Florida Public Service Commission that a challenge remains in getting in touch with many of the customers.

“I am fearful that their balances will get out of hand, and by the time they do call us, that conversation won’t matter anyway,” said Christopher Chapel, vice president of customer service for Florida Power & Light.

Some of the costs will eventually be written off, but the bulk — if the situation is unchanged or grows worse in the coming months  could fall on all customers.

The Office of Public Counsel supported companies that waived late fees and halted disconnections and are offering long-term payment plans to help customers catch up on overdue bills.

Morse suggested adding disconnection protections for seniors and people who are infirm, while providing additional safeguards to low-income customers.

“We have also received a number of questions from customers on more details on the policies of each of the utilities,” Morse said. “They do vary from utility to utility right now in terms of their policies on late fees or other fees, and what's going to happen when they do in fact resume disconnections, and how long customers will have to pay their bill.”

Commission Chairman Gary Clark said regulators must establish a collection method for customers affected financially by the pandemic.

“To sum up our situation here, it's simply, as best I can come up with, balancing human emotional and physical needs and weighing that against what the future impacts financially are going to be and how that is distributed,” Clark said.

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Contact Chronicle reporter Michael D. Bates at 352-563-3205 or mbates@chronicleonline.com.