New York electric utility rates for residential customers are 59% higher than the national average. That is simply not affordable for many customers. In 2014, New York State’s electric and gas utilities issued 7.2 million shutoff notices and shut off service to 268,000 customers as a bill collection measure. The largest energy utility, Con Edison, issued 2.8 million shutoff notices and shut of service to 82,000 customers in 2014.
Shutoff notices place many customers with unaffordable bills in jeopardy of losing essential utility services. In addition to stress and worsening financial circumstances, utility shutoff threats and actual shutoffs may spiral into crisis situations, dangerous conditions, loss of life or other serious harm to customers and their neighbors.
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Typically, shutoff notices and shutoffs surge in the months of April, May,and June, otherwise known as “Shutoff Season.” Consequently, it becomes even more important that customers receive adequate notice of impending utility shutoffs, and of their rights under the Home Energy Fair Practices Act (HEFPA). HEFPA
- bars utilities from terminating service to collect disputed charges, amounts owed by other persons and stale charges,
- generally prohibits shared meters registering usage outside a customers’ premises,
- requires utilities to offer level payment plans, limits deposit requirements, and
- contains other protections for vulnerable customers with serious medical conditions that would be worsened by a shutoff.
The HEFPA rules require
- written notice of shutoffs mailed or delivered 15 days in advance of the earliest possible date of shutoff,
- bars shutoff based on nonpayment of disputed charges on the utility bill,
- requires utilities to offer written deferred payment plans that are negotiable based on the customer’s economic circumstances,
- bars shutoff when a household has a doctor-certified medical condition that would be worsened by a shutoff,
- requires notice to customers of utility and PSC complaint procedures,
- and requires the extension of service to a household member who does not owe the utility for prior service to an account in his or her name.
Utility customers and their local advocates who call the Utility Project regarding impending shutoffs or complaints often seem unaware of the opportunity to have their complaints decided by the Public Service Commission and the availability of help through the PSC Emergency Hotline. The PSC Emergency Hotline number is 1 (800) 342-3355 and customers may call on any business day between 7:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Where appropriate, the Emergency Hotline staff can exercise the PSC’s authority to order the reconnection, continuation or initiation of utility service whenever a reasonable question regarding the circumstances of a termination, disconnection, suspension or refusal of service exists, or whenever the health or safety of a person is involved.
The federal block grant funded Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), which helps many New Yorkers pay utility bills, closed on March 27, 2015. However, customers often do not know that even when the HEAP program is closed to new applicants, “one shot” aid under Social Services Law 131-s is available to applicants for public assistance — even if the applicant is not financially eligible for ongoing assistance payments.
Section 32 of the Public Service Law governs terminations, and it addresses what must be contained in a utility shutoff notice, requiring that no termination can occur unless the customer:
****is sent a final notice of termination no less than fifteen days before the termination date shown on the notice. Any such notice shall, at a minimum, clearly state the reason for termination of service; how termination may be avoided; that the utility corporation or municipality has available procedures for handling complaints; a summary of the protections available under this article; that any customer eligible for such protections should contact the utility corporation or municipality* * * *
The regulations of the Department of Public Service, 16 NYCRR Part 11.4(a)(2) which implement HEFPA, additionally set out the requirements for shutoff notices as follows:
“(2) Final notice. A final notice of termination or disconnection shall clearly state or include:
- (i) the earliest date on which termination or disconnection may occur;
- (ii) the reasons for termination or disconnection, including the total amount required to be paid, and the manner in which termination or disconnection may be avoided;
- (iii) the address and phone number of the office of the utility that the customer may contact in reference to his account;
- (iv) the availability of utility procedures for handling complaints; and
- (v) a summary, prepared or approved by the commission or its authorized designee, of the protections available under this Part, together with a notice that any customer eligible for such protections should contact the utility. The final notice of termination or disconnection may include any additional information not inconsistent with this Part. The final notice of termination from on ESCO, however, shall inform the customer that suspension of the customer’s distribution service can accompany the ESCO’s commodity termination, even if the customer’s account for distribution service is current. In addition, the notice shall have printed on its face, in a size type capable of attracting immediate attention, language conveying the following: THIS IS A FINAL TERMINATION NOTICE. PLEASE REFER TO THIS NOTICE WHEN PAYING THIS BILL. OR THIS IS A FINAL DISCONNECTION NOTICE. PLEASE REFER TO THIS NOTICE WHEN PAYING THIS BILL.”