OH, KS, IA Review High Heating Bills, Disconnects for Nonpayment

As the moratorium on electric and natural gas heating disconnections in Ohio came to an end last Monday in Ohio, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) enacted a last minute order stating that regulated utility companies need to follow specific steps before disconnecting consumers for non-payment of a winter heating bill.

Meanwhile, in Kansas, the Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) extended its Cold Weather Rule emergency order and implemented a moratorium on service disconnections for natural gas and electric service through May 31. The order provides emergency relief for customers struggling to pay utility bills resulting from the record-breaking natural gas prices this winter. And in Iowa, the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) began an emergency investigation to study the adequacy of payment options available to natural gas customers following the record-high energy bills this winter. The Iowa board held a workshop last week, inviting all regulated natural gas utilities serving the state to participate.

The Ohio commission's order stated "companies can pursue disconnection for delinquency (non-payment of a bill) only after serving, after March 26, 2001, new 14-day disconnection notices and additional 10-day notices, along with the applicable 24-hour notices prior to disconnection."

On Jan. 25, following Ohio Gov. Bob Taft's lead, the PUCO issued an order prohibiting Ohio's investor-owned natural gas and electric distribution companies from disconnecting service to residential consumers from for non-payment of a bill for 60 days, as long as the customer agreed to enroll in one of the commission-ordered payment plans offered by the utility. Currently, there are approximately six million residential customers being supplied gas or electric service from a regulated Ohio utility company.

"We believe this 60-day moratorium period has provided time to assist customers during the very cold Ohio weather," said PUCO Chairman Alan Schriber. "However, we encourage customers who continue to feel the strain of this winter's heating costs to contact their utility company or the PUCO consumer hotline for information about payment assistance plans." The PUCO toll-free hotline is 1-800-686-7826. The PUCO added that there are a number of payment assistance programs currently available to consumers through their individual utility companies.

Also, for the 15th consecutive year, the PUCO invoked a Winter Reconnection Order requiring the state's gas and electric utilities to reconnect or maintain winter heating service to customers who have been disconnected or threatened with disconnection due to non-payment of a utility bill. Under the plan, utility customers whose service has been or may be disconnected due to non-payment can have their service restored or maintained from October through April 13, 2001 if they pay the amount in default or $175, whichever is less, plus a service reconnection fee of no more than $20, the PUCO said. Default customers may only use the service once a year during the term of the program.

The winter reconnection program does not have any income eligibility requirements, the commission said. Participants must also sign up for one of the special plans available to customers to help them pay a past-due balance on their utility bill. The PUCO said that the special, one-time payment plan was used by more than 129,371 Ohioans last winter.

The Kansas order gives residential customers more time to either become current or enter into a 12-month Cold Weather Rule payment arrangement with their utility companies. KCC said it was encouraging customers to make arrangements before the beginning of air conditioning season or before next year's heating season.

Along with the moratorium on service disconnections, KCC said that utilities also have to continue to offer a Cold Weather Rule payment arrangement to residential customers who are unable to pay their bills in full or have amounts due from past bills.

Under the KCC rule, the customer must make an initial payment of 1/12 of the total amount owed the utility. The balance then would be billed in equal payments over the following 11 months in addition to the regular monthly bill. Utility companies also may require customers to go on a level payment plan for the same period.

Regarding the investigation in Iowa, regulators there want all natural gas utilities that provide retail service in the state to file responses to several questions pertaining to current billing issues to help determine the "full impact of unusually high natural gas bills." Specifically, IUB asked for financial information from each natural gas utility on total customer accounts and moratorium-protected customer accounts that are in arrears, as well as comments about possible changes to current rules for disconnection, payment arrangements or budget billing.

In its order, issued March 22 [Docket No. N01-01-1], IUB said "since utility costs and revenues affecting natural gas customers during 2000-01 heating season are unprecedented (including those still receivable by utilities from consumers), it is not clear that the board's current rules offer sufficient options for customers. In order to evaluate the rules in the current environment, it is necessary that the board have more information regarding the precise effect of this winter's gas bills."

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