Board Asks Utilities To Suspend Shutoffs During COVID-19 Emergency


20 Mar

The Iowa Utilities Board is asking all electrical, natural gas, water and telecommunications utilities in the state to temporarily suspend shutoffs for nonpayment during the COVID-19 emergency.

Board chairman Geri Huser said in an interview that all investor-owned electrical, natural gas and water utilities that it regulates have already suspended shutoffs:  MidAmerican Energy, Alliant Energy, Interstate Power and Light, Black Hills Energy, Liberty Gas and Iowa-American Water.  The Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities has also notified the board that its members would temporarily suspend any disconnection of services to customers.

The board does not have jurisdiction over non-rate-regulated utilities such as those owned by local governments but it was asking those utilities — especially those providing water service — to also suspend shutoffs.  Huser said every utility that she has contacted that had already sent out shutoff notices had agreed not to proceed with the shutoff.

The board was particularly focused on avoiding water shutoffs because hygiene is critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19, Huser said.

“We’re also asking all customers to do the right thing and pay their bill,” if they’re able to, Huser said. This avoids building up a debt that customers might struggle to repay when the moratorium ends.

Earlier this week, the board issued an emergency order directing all electric and natural gas utilities in the state to cease disconnection of residential service due to nonpayment through May 1 for people who qualify for financial relief through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. This was essentially an extension of the state’s usual winter shutoff moratorium, normally in effect from Nov. 1 to April 1. The order was in response to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ public health emergency declaration.

Iowans wishing to apply for LIHEAP financial assistance with their utility bills should contact their local community action agency before May 31 to discuss the application process and eligibility, the board said it a news release.

The governor’s emergency declaration temporarily closed bars, fitness and recreational centers, theaters, casinos and other entertainment venues and required restaurants to operate only carry-out or delivery services.  The order bans public gatherings of more than 10 people. Many other businesses have also closed temporarily, putting some employees out of work.

Some telecommunications, cable and internet companies have voluntarily signed on to the Keep Americans Connected Pledge issued by Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai on March 13.  Companies, including major providers Centurylink, Mediacom and AT&T in Iowa, pledged not to disconnect service or assess late fees to any customers who inform the company they cannot pay their bill during the 60-day period.

Participating companies also agreed to make their Wi-Fi hot spots available to any American who needs them.  That move comes as other common sources of internet service, such as public libraries and coffee shops, are closed and government agencies are restricting in-person access to services that are available online.

The Des Moines Public Library has announced it will keep its Wi-Fi turned on so that people can access it in library parking lots.

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