Electricity and Natural Gas Utilities FAQs

shutterstock_127267256The rights of residential customers of electricity and natural gas utilities in New York State are set forth in the Home Energy Fair Practices Act of 1981 (HEFPA) and the Energy Consumer Protection Act of 2002 (ECPA). These statutes are implemented, interpreted and administered primarily through state Public Service Commission (PSC).

Although the PSC resolves utility complaints and disputes, utilities also must establish their own complaint handling procedures to reduce the need for PSC intervention. The PSC evaluates complaint statistics for utilities it regulates and may establish performance incentives or sanctions to address high complaint rates. The PSC can also revoke an unregulated energy service company’s (ESCO’s) ability to sell electricity or gas if the number of legitimate complaints brought against is excessive.

Please click on the arrow ( V ) to access the answer to each question.

Getting Service

 

Q. How do I get service?

A. You can apply for electricity and natural gas service by calling the utility and giving your name, address, telephone number, and prior account number, if any. If your verbal application for service is denied or not acted upon, you have the right to complain to the Public Service Commission.

Sometimes the utility requires a written application. This can happen when a former customer’s service at your residence was terminated for non-payment, the meter has advanced or been tampered with since the last customer left, or your application is made in your name by someone else.

The utility must notify you within two business days if it will require a written application and why your verbal application is not sufficient. It can also require reasonable proof of your identify to verify your name and prior address so you may be asked to provide your driver’s license or credit card. The utility may also ask for proof of responsibility for service at your new residence and will ask to see a lease, deed, bill of sale, or other document showing you occupy the premises. The utility cannot require you to give your Social Security number as a condition of receiving service.

Q. Can a utility refuse me service if I owe them money on a previous account in my name?

A. The utility must provide service to you, even if you owe money on a previous account in your name, if you:

  • Pay the amount you owe in full; or
  • Make a payment agreement to pay off the amount you owe in installments over time. The utility must offer and negotiate such an agreement to you; or
  • Have a dispute with the utility concerning the amount which has not been paid pending with the Public Service Commission (PSC) in a complaint proceeding; or
  • Are receiving or have applied for public assistance, Supplemental Security Income, and the local social services office has agreed to pay for all or a portion of amounts owed on your previous account and agreed to provide the utility with a guarantee of future payments on your new account; or
  • The PSC hotline directs the utility to provide you with service.

Q. I just moved into an apartment where an old tenant, not on the lease, had the utility account in his name. He was pocketing the money from the roommates and did not pay the bill. He has now moved out and our electricity was shut off two weeks ago. We have a bill for $3200 and the utility will not allow me to open a new account in my name without a new lease. Is there any legal recourse? I cannot afford to pay this bill for which I am not responsible.

A. Public Service Law 31 requires the utility to provide service to an occupant who does not owe the company money for past service in his or her name.

Applications for service may be made verbally (usually by telephone) or in writing. Where there are arrears from a prior account at the premises, the company may require a new applicant for service to make a written application and provide proof of identity. This may be done at utility company offices.

Service is available to an “occupant” whether or not they are named on a written lease. A lease is not a precondition to receiving utility service, but if you are on a lease it can be one way to provide evidence you are an occupant at the premises.

Other evidence of one’s occupancy at a particular address should be acceptable including a driver’s license, passport address, other ID with the address and mail received at the address.

The utility is required to provide service to a new applicant within five days and must provide written notice of denial if it refuses service. A denial of service should include detailed information about how the denial may be reviewed by the Public Service Commission (PSC).

If the utility refuses service the applicant can call the PSC Hotline if service is off or is about to be shut off 1-800-342-3355.

An applicant whose request for service has been denied can also lodge a formal complaint about a denial of service by calling the PSC at 1-800-342-3377. Complaints may also be made lodged in person at PSC offices, by mail to the PSC and on their website.

Q. I just moved into an apartment with my son. The landlord requires that I put electric service in my name. I called the utility to request service. The utility refused, saying there is a balance of about $2,400 on an old account that was in my name from a place my partner and I shared over 7 years ago. My son was born when I lived there, I was staying at home and my partner was supposed to be paying the utility bill. Apparently that didn’t happen, I never knew until now he hadn’t paid on the bill which was in my name. We are no longer together. Now I can’t get the electricity turned on as required by the landlord as a condition of my tenancy. Can a New York Utility Deny Service for Nonpayment of Charges which are more than Six Years Old?

A. The relationship between the customer and the utility is that of contract, shaped by approved utility tariffs and the Public Service Law and PSC Regulations and Orders. Under established practice the PSC only will hear and decide claims regarding past charges for a period of six years after they were made. This limitation period is patterned after the six year contract statute of limitations under CPLR §213. Thus, the PSC does not hear customer claims for refunds more than 6 years after charges were made, and in some cases it has closed the door to refund of overcharges for lesser periods.  The PSC should not allow utilities to withhold essential utility service to collect stale charges, which they could have attempted to collect through conventional judicial remedies, more than six years after the charges were allegedly incurred.

Also, the Home Energy Fair Practices Act establishes a policy of continued residential service without unreasonable conditions or delays.  Conditioning service on repayment of charges the utility would have no right to collect in court would be unreasonable and could cause delays in service inconsistent with the statute.

Suggestions:  (1) The six year statute of limitation on contracts would have expired if the bill the utility is trying to collect by withholding service is seven years old. Ask the utility to reconsider and for an explanation of why service is being denied for claimed arrears that are more than six years old.   (2) Ask the utility for a written explanation of why you are being denied service which states the facts and legal basis the utility claims allows denial of service for bills more than six years old. (3) If not satisfied by the utility response, complain to the PSC and ask the PSC to decide the issue. Information on how to make a complaint to the PSC by phone or internet or mail is here.  (4) If service is off due to the dispute, call the PSC Hotline at 1-800-342-3355

Customers wrongfully denied service within 5 days of their application may be entitled to $25 per day from the utility for each day after the wrongful denial, under PSL §31.5.

Q. How will I know if the utility intends to deny me service?

A. If the utility intends to deny your application, it must send you a written notice within three business days of your date of application, informing you of the reasons for the denial and the steps you must take to get service (such as a Deferred Payment Agreement). And you have a right to a PSC investigation and review of the denial, including the appropriate address and telephone number for filing the complaint and the PSC hotline number (1-800-342-3355).

If you have not received service or a notice within three business days, you may deem your application for service to have been denied and complain to the PSC by calling 1-800-342-3377 or file a written complaint with the PSC.

Q. When Can The Utility Demand A Deposit?

A. In general, residential service must be provided with no deposit to an applicant. Deposits may not be required from recipients of public assistance or Social Security Income. The law and regulation permit the utility to require a deposit in the following situation:

  • When the applicant is a short term customer who is defined as “a person who requires service for a specified period of time that does not exceed one year.”
  • When the applicant is a seasonal customer who is defined as “a person who applies for and receives utility service periodically each year, intermittently during the year, or at other irregular intervals.”
  • If the applicant’s utility service was terminated for nonpayment during the preceding six months.

 

 Budget Billing

 

Q. What is budget billing?

A. When customers choose to have a “Budget Billing” or “Levelized Payment” plan, the utility predicts what future bills will be based on the prior year’s bills and anticipated changes going forward (e.g., higher rates). The customer pays a level amount each month. If at the end of the budget year, the amount paid under a budget billing plan is more than actual charges, then the customer gets a credit. If the customer pays less than actual charges, the customer must make up the difference.

Q. Does budget billing affect the amount I pay for service?

A. No. Budget billing plans are intended mainly to level out swings in utility bills due to seasonal changes in customer consumption. For example, winter heating bills could be spread over the year by starting to pay on the plan before the season started while consumption is low, paying less than the amount otherwise due in winter when more energy was used and again paying more than the amount otherwise due in springtime. 

Q. Will budget billing affect my eligibility for the federal Emergency Home Energy Assistance Program (EHEAP)?

A. Maybe. Some customers, particularly those on fixed incomes, may find budget billing plans helpful. Others may not, particularly if they might otherwise qualify for low-income heating assistance under the Emergency Home Energy Assistance Program. That program closes April 23, so a budget billing customer who now has a deficiency at the end of the budget period due to higher than predicted heating bills, and then has a threatened termination when he cannot pay that deficiency, will not obtain emergency EHEAP to prevent the termination.

A similarly situated neighbor not on budget billing, whose heat-related bill-payment crisis occurs during the winter time when EHEAP is available, may qualify for several hundred dollars of federal aid. Other customers may be less trustful of utility billing and record keeping and may wish to remain on a pay-as-you-go basis.  Thus, budget billing is not optimal for everyone.  Customers should take into account their individual circumstances before entering into a budget plan.

Q. Does budget billing remove the volatility of utility bills?

A. Partly. Some utilities may argue that vulnerable customers can use budget billing plans to defend themselves from wholesale market price swings being passed through to customers without sufficient price hedging by the utility under monthly rate adjustment mechanisms approved by the Public Service Commission (PSC). The PSC, in its orders creating retail competition, adopted volatile pricing methodologies on the theory that if customers prefer stable utility rates, the competitive market will provide the stability desired by consumers. In some of its restructuring orders the PSC allowed utilities to pass through insufficiently hedged wholesale prices, resulting in price volatility for customers. Electric customers in upstate New York generally do not have such a pass through of volatile wholesale prices under their rate plans.

 

Complaints

 

Q. We paid our electric bills on time every month. We had to break out lease early because of rats and non-stop construction and after closing out our account, were told we owed the utility $4000. When asked why they said they had billed us incorrectly. The meter was getting high readings as of October but they rejected them only to realize they were real 4 months later (which is when they notified us). We are not sure if the readings are because of issues in the building (non stop construction) or if they are accurate, why didn't they notify us? Because of this, we had no form of recourse or the ability to change our actions. We received not a single notification. Then, because we closed our account, they said we have no ability to dispute the charge. Who should we contact? And would a lawyer be a stronger move than complaining to the PSC

A. If you want to dispute the charges on your bill, you can file a complaint with the PSC and ask for a written determination. The administrative proceedings are designed for customers without attorneys. You do need to make an effort to complain first to the utility before seeking a decision from the PSC.

If you are not satisfied, an initial determination,is reviewable at an administrative hearing (or review on papers if you choose) at the PSC, and that decision can be appealed to the PSC Commissioners, who in their discretion can decide it. From a final administrative decision, judicial review can be sought in state Supreme Court, in Albany County, under CPLR Article 78. The court normally defers to the agency on matters of fact decided by the agency and on matters within agency expertise, so only rarely does judicial review reverse a PSC decision in a complaint case.

PSC information on how to file complaints is at the link below. You can complain online, which may be better as it preserves in your own words your written explanation of the complaint and what you want the utility or PSC to do. We suggest you copy your complaint before you push the send button, the confirming email may not include a copy of your complaint:

After receiving your complaint, the PSC bucks the matter back to the utility to give them one more chance to respond to you. If that does not satisfy you, and you still want the PSC to decide the matter, you must renew your complaint with the PSC. Only then does the PSC "escalate" the case and begin to adjudicate the complaint.

So one needs to complain twice (three times if one counts the first complaint to the utility) in order to get a written ruling from the PSC on a customer complaint.

If you open a new account at a new address in the same name as the old account, the utility can withhold service unless you pay or make arrangements to pay the arrears. Payment plans must be negotiable based on the customer's ability to pay.

If you do not open a new account, the utility might sue in court for a judgment to collect the alleged arrears. If such a suit is brought against you, submitting an answer, with any defenses you have, will bar a default judgment and the utility will bear the burden to move for summary judgment or prove you owe the money at a trial.

Q. I just received a bill from the utility for $13,000. I can't pay it. I have paid my bill every month.The utility says all my bills were estimated bills since 2008, now they have made an actual reading and I owe $13,000. I cant believe I owe that much money for electricity. I am on disability and don't have the money. I rent one unit in a 2 family duplex.

A. You have several alternatives:

  • You can  have the meter checked for accuracy.
  • If you have reason to believe service was diverted to the other housing unit you can request and obtain a shared meter investigation from the utility.
  • If the reason for the backbill is not due to fault on your part you cannot be shut off due to arrears more than one year old.  In that case you would remain liable for the debt, but service could not be shut off to collect it.
  • If you cannot afford to pay what you ultimately owe you should be able to negotiate a deferred payment agreement based on your individual financial circumstances.
  • If you do not receive satisfaction with the utility you can complain to the PSC.  The PSC will refer the issue to the utility to review again, and if you are still not satisfied you can call the PSC and ask them to issue a written decision on your complaint, and  you may seek further review if you are not satisfied with the PSC's initial decision.

 

Preventing Terminations (Shut Offs)

 

Q. Can the utility shut off my service?

A. A utility can’t terminate your electric or gas service unless you fail to:

  • Pay charges for services rendered in the past twelve months or longer in certain situations;
  • Make payments under a written Deferred Payment Agreement (DPA). However, a DPA can be renegotiated if your financial circumstances change;
  • Pay or agree in writing to pay equipment and installation charges related to the initiation of service; or
  • Pay a lawfully required deposit, and
  • The utility gave you a notice in writing at least 15 days in advance that it plans to shut off your service. During that time you can pay the overdue bill or make a payment agreement on the overdue amount to prevent termination. Termination notices may not be sent until at least 20 days after payment was due.

Q. When can service be shut off?

A. At least 15 days after service of a final termination notice which cannot be sent out until 20 days after the payment was due.

Utilities can shut off your service only:

  • Between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • From Monday through Thursday, NEVER ON FRIDAY.

Your service cannot be shut off on a public holiday, the day before a holiday, the week period between and including Christmas and New Year's Day, or on any day before your utility business office closed.

Q. When is the utility prohibited from shutting off service?

A. Service cannot be shut off by the utility if:

  • A Final Termination Notice has not been sent to you;
  • A doctor certifies to your utility that there is a medical emergency;
  • You have an unresolved billing dispute with your utility or the Public Service Commission (PSC) concerning the amount owed;
  • You make full payment of the amount owed when your utility comes to shut off service; or
  • You make a payment agreement with your utility which covers the amount owed.

Q. I rent my apartment in a multiple unit building and utilities are included in my rent. Can the utility shut off my service if my landlord doesn’t pay his bill?

A. Yes, but you have to be notified of the problem and provided with an opportunity to avoid termination.

To give notice the utility must:

  • Provide written notice termination to the owner and superintendent or other person in charge of the building at least 15 days before termination date. During cold weather (November 1 - April l5), 30 days notice must be given for termination of heat-related service; and;
  • Post written notice of termination in your dwelling’s public areas at least 15 days before the intended termination (30 days during the cold weather period for heat-related service); and
  • Mail written notice of termination to each occupant of your dwelling at least l8 days before the intended termination (30 days during the cold weather period for heat-related service); and;
  • Mail notice to specified public officials. The notice must be repeated to most of these officials 2-4 days before service is terminated.

Opportunity to Avoid Termination

If occupants of your dwelling make timely payments for current service, the utility can’t terminate service because the owner failed to make such payments. And the utility can’t require them to pay anything more than the current charges incurred by the landlord. In addition, occupants making utility payments are permitted to deduct their payments from future rent payments.

If occupants in your dwelling can’t reach an agreement with the utility to prevent termination, contact the Public Service Commission (PSC), who will attempt to negotiate such an agreement with the utility. In certain situations, the PSC will stay a threatened termination if the occupants are making good faith efforts pay current bills.

Q. I am a tenant in a two family dwelling with one utility meter and my utilities are included in my rent. Can the utility shut off my service if my landlord doesn’t pay his bill?

A. When the utility knows that a single meter measures utility service to both units of your dwelling, it must comply with the following procedures before terminating service:

To give notice the utility must:

  • Give the owner notice 15 days before termination (30 days during the cold weather period), and to the occupant of each occupied unit; and
  • Where possible, post a copy of the notice of its intent to terminate service in a conspicuous place at or within the dwelling.

Opportunity to Avoid Termination

Any occupant of a two-family dwelling not metered separately may prevent termination of service by:

  • Paying current charges. If you pay current charges you are not liable for future bills rendered for service. Future bills will continue to the owner (you can receive a copy). You can set off any payments you make against your rent.
  • Applying for service in your own name, thus making you liable for future payments. There are two potential problems with this option. First, you become responsible for service. Second, if the meter registers service to two apartments, the responsible tenant creates a "shared meter," which is against public policy.

Q. What if I have a medical emergency or am blind, disabled or elderly or in cases of cold weather, can my electricity and heat be terminated?

A. There are special safeguards against terminations in the following three situations:

  • In medical emergencies;
  • To elderly, blind or disabled customers; and
  • In cold weather periods for heat-related electric or gas service.

In medical emergencies, termination is generally delayed. In the case of the elderly, blind or disabled customers or cold weather, a utility may eventually terminate service after complying with specific Public Service Commission (PSC) requirements.

In each of these situations, the customer remains liable for the costs of service and must make reasonable efforts to pay.

Q. What happens if I have a medical emergency?

A. When your utility is notified by your doctor or the local Board of Health that a medical emergency exists that will be aggravated by the lack of utility service, it has to keep your service on or restore your service for 30 days. The notification may be made by phone, but must be followed within five business days by written certification, which should be on the doctor’s letterhead. This certificate may be renewed for an additional 30 days by the doctor who must explain how long the condition will last and you must show why you are unable to pay your utility bill. If your medical condition is chronic, a longer time period can be approved.

If utility service is required to operate a life support system (ventilator, dialysis machine) the doctor's certificate remains effective unless terminated by the Public Service Commission (PSC). However, every three months, you must show your utility why you can't pay your bill. Your utility will code your account to ensure service is continued to your residence.

If the utility intends to terminate service to a medical emergency account, it must send a final termination notice fifteen days prior to the date of termination.

During the medical emergency your obligation to pay the bill is suspended and you may owe a large amount at the end of the medical emergency. The PSC required to help you work out payment arrangements to avoid arrearages at the end of the emergency.

Insulin Refrigeration - Utilities sometimes refuse to continue electric service even when it is needed to refrigerate insulin needed by diabetics. Insulin is sensitive to temperature changes and using a cooler with ice, sometimes suggested by utilities, is not a proper way to store it.

Q. Where can I find an example of a physician's certification of a medical emergency?

Q. What are the special procedures to protect the elderly, blind or disabled customers from termination?

A. Utilities must follow special procedures before terminating or refusing to restore service to customers who are identified as blind, disabled or 62 years of age or older. However, these protections only apply if all the remaining household residents are blind, disabled, age 62 or older or age l8 or younger.

When these circumstances are known, the utility must diligently try to contact an adult resident at the premises by telephone or, if unsuccessful, in person, at least 72 hours before terminating service to devise a plan to prevent termination and to pay the bills.

Payment may be accomplished through a deferred payment agreement (DPA), or by payment or guarantee of payment by any governmental or social welfare agency or private organization. If no plan to secure payment can be reached, the utility must notify the local department of social services (DSS) and provide the customer's name, address and termination date, so that the DSS may assist in developing a plan for the customer. The utility must continue the service for at least 15 business days after it makes the referral, unless it is notified by DSS that acceptable payment or other arrangements have been made. The customer may also seek help from the Public Service Commission (PSC) to develop a payment plan.

In cases where service has already been terminated, and the utility is thereafter notified that the customer is entitled to the elderly, blind or disabled protections, the utility is required to make a diligent effort to contact an adult resident at the customer's premises, by telephone or in person, within 24 hours of its receipt of such notice. When it makes the contact, it must follow the pre-termination procedures outlined above (devise a DPA or refer to DSS).

Even when a utility has properly terminated service, it is still required to make a diligent effort to contact an adult resident at the elderly, blind or disabled customer's premises within 10 days following the service termination to determine whether alternative arrangements for utility service have been made. If no arrangements are in place, the utility must try again to devise a plan to restore service and arrange for the payment of bills.

Q. What are the special procedures to protect customers from termination in cold weather periods?

A. During cold weather periods from November 1 - April 15, utilities must follow special procedures in supplying heat-related utility service. These procedures vary, depending on whether a customer is directly responsible for the utility bill or whether they are a resident of a multiple dwelling unit or two-family house. The utility must identify residential households within its service territory whose utility service is heat-related and apply procedures based on the type of dwelling.

Q. I live in a single family dwelling. What are the special procedures to protect me from termination in cold weather periods?

A. Before terminating service to a single family dwelling during cold weather:

  • The utility must try to contact the customer or an adult resident at the customer's premises, by telephone or in person, at least 72 hours before the intended termination to determine whether the termination is likely to cause a serious impairment to the health or safety of any resident. The utility must repeat this attempt at the time of termination.
  • If the utility learns that a resident is likely to suffer a serious impairment to health or safety, it may not terminate heat-related service until:
    1. The utility notifies the local department of social services (DSS) commissioner orally and provides written notice within 5 days that a resident is likely to suffer a serious impairment to health or safety as a result of termination; and
    1. DSS, following its investigation, informs the utility that the reported condition is not likely to result in a serious impairment to health or safety or that an alternative means for protecting the person's health or safety has been devised. (A utility may use its discretion whether to terminate the service if it does not receive any report from DSS within l5 business days after its written referral to DSS.)

If the utility terminates service during the cold weather period without first making the required contact with the customer and the customer does not contact the utility by 12PM on the following day for reconnection, the utility must immediately make an on-site visit to the customer's home to determine whether there is continued occupancy and whether the continued lack of utility service may cause a serious impairment to health or safety. If the utility so determines, it must immediately restore service and refer the matter to DSS. If no personal contact can be made and there are no reasonable grounds to believe the premises are vacant, the utility must immediately refer the case to the local DSS.

If a utility decides to terminate service during the cold weather period because of an unsafe condition or because of meter tampering, it must observe the same procedures set forth above under Heat-Related Service to Single Family Dwellings.

Q. I live in a multiple dwelling. What are the special procedures to protect me from termination in cold weather periods?

A. Before terminating service to a multiple dwelling during cold weather, the utility must follow the termination rules for multiple dwellings, but provide the required written notices at least 30 days before the intended termination.

The utility must also give each occupant at least l0-days written notice of an intended termination. The notice must advise occupants to contact the utility immediately if any occupant has a serious illness or medical condition that is likely to result in a serious impairment to health or safety from the loss of heat related service, in which case the utility must conduct an on-site interview and refer confirmed situations of likely serious impairment to DSS.

For at least l5 business days after referral to DSS, the utility must continue heat-related service to the multiple dwelling or otherwise provide heat to the person likely to suffer a serious impairment. The utility may not thereafter terminate heat-related service to the entire dwelling during the cold weather period unless:

  • It otherwise provides heat to the person likely to suffer a serious impairment;
  • DSS informs that appropriate alternative arrangements to preclude a serious impairment to health or safety have been made; or
  • DSS informs that the claim of impairment is without merit.

The utility may then terminate service after giving at least 5 days written notice to the occupants.

Q. I live in a two-family dwelling. What are the special procedures to protect me from termination in cold weather periods?

A. Before terminating service to a two-family dwelling in or outside of New York City during cold weather, the utility must follow the termination rules for either single-family dwellings or multiple dwellings.

In addition, any notices required must be provided at least 30 days before the intended termination date. The criteria for utility field personnel to use as general standards in determining whether a person is likely to suffer a serious impairment to health or safety are:

  • age, infirmity or mental incapacitation;
  • use of life support systems;
  • serious illness;
  • physical disability or blindness; and
  • Any other factual circumstances which indicate severe or hazardous health situations.

Q. I live in New York City. Are there special procedures to protect me from termination in cold weather periods?

A. In New York City, a utility must provide written notice to each occupant at least 10 days before the earliest termination date, directing them to contact the New York City Heat Line if any occupant in the apartment has a serious illness or medical condition that would result in a serious impairment to health or safety by loss of heat-related service.

The city will notify the utility if it receives a claim that loss of heat-related service is likely to cause a serious impairment to health or safety, in which case the utility must continue service to the building for at least 15 business days. Thereafter, the utility must continue heat-related service to the dwelling during the cold weather period unless it is informed by the city that appropriate alternative arrangements have been made for the occupants or that the claim is without merit. At that point, the utility may terminate service after giving at least five days written notice to the occupants.

Even after heat-related service has been properly terminated, the utility must restore service if it is notified by city that a serious impairment to health or safety is likely to result.

Q. What other protections against terminations do I have in the cold weather period?

A. During the cold weather period, utilities and municipalities are required to continue service when a service termination will likely cause a serious impairment to health or safety and the utility customer, because of mental or physical problems, is unable to manage their own resources or to protect themselves from neglect or hazardous situations without help from others. In such cases, there is no distinction between heat-related and non heat-related service. Utilities are required to continue to provide service to these residential customers.

Once a utility has been notified of a situation as described above, it must extend the protection to that customer and notify the local department of social service (DSS) office. If there is any doubt whether termination will cause a potentially serious impairment, it must be resolved in favor of continued service.

Local DSS offices are required to respond to suspected serious impairment to health and safety, neglect, hazard and dormant account referrals as follows:

  • Identify whether the customer referred is a recipient of public assistance.
  • Attempt in-person contact to devise a plan to prevent termination. If in-person contact can’t be achieved, and the utility has contacted the customer but no plan has been devised to prevent termination, the local DSS office sends a letter to the referred household explaining how it may apply for emergency assistance, and identify the date by which such application for assistance must be made, in order to prevent utility service termination.
  • Send the letter described above to the referred household whenever the utility has not contacted the household before terminating service, there’s no suspicion or verification of a suspected serious impairment or neglect or hazardous situation or the account is dormant.
  • Report back to the utility within 15 business days but only in cases where serious impairment to health or safety is likely to result or in neglect or hazardous situation referrals.
  • Assist the household to make timely application for emergency assistance to resolve the termination threat or to restore service.

While the local DSS office investigation is pending, the utility must continue service for at least l5 business days from the date referral was made unless DSS notifies it that acceptable payment or other arrangements have been made.

Q. I rented an apartment with utilities included. The owner stopped paying all bills and bank foreclosure proceedings are underway. After the landlord apparently stopped paying, Niagara Mohawk shut off the utilities.

To get service I applied for an account in my own name and a new account was opened. Niagara Mohawk d/b/a National Grid then sent me a bill for arrears owed by the landlord for service provided before I opened my account. The utility is demanding I pay over $2.000 before the end of the month.

I called the utility and they said I had assumed the obligation of the landlord. I did not agree to do that, and did not sign any agreement to pay the landlord's bills.

What can I do?

A. You are not responsible for your landlord's utility bills. As a general matter, under the statute of frauds (NY General Obligations Law § 5-701), an agreement to pay someone else's debt to a utility would be a "special promise to answer for the debt, default or miscarriage of another person", which requires a written agreement.

Moreover, even if one agreed to pay another's bills in order to restore utility service or prevent a shutoff, such an agreement would be voidable because of economic duress.

If you pay what you agree you owe for current service since you opened the account in your name, and dispute the remainder through the PSC complaint handling process, under HEFPA you cannot be shut off until after the dispute over the bill is resolved. For information about how to make a complaint click HERE.

Remember to ask for a written decision by the PSC on the case, which they are required to do upon request under PSL § 43.2.

Be aware you may have to complain twice to get any action from the PSC. The complaint will be referred by the PSC to the utility, the utility is then supposed to contact you, and it they do not satisfy you, you will need to protest again to the PSC. The second time you should get a response, but if you do not complain a second time the PSC will assume you dropped the complaint and do nothing.

 

Deferred Payment Agreements (DPAs)

 

Q. What if I can't pay my bill?

A. Under the Home Energy Fair Practices Act the utility is required to negotiate in good faith with you over the terms of a deferred payment agreement (DPA) based on your financial situation. Under a DPA you agree to pay current bills plus the DPA amount to pay back what you owe over time.

Q. The utility says I broke a previous understanding with its collections office to pay the bills and now they will not negotiate a deferred DPA with me. What can I do?

A. A utility may refuse to enter into a new DPA only if an old one was broken and there has been no change of circumstances that would justify a new one. A DPA, however, is required to be in writing and signed by both the customer and the utility. Therefore, unless you broke a real DPA, the utility is required to negotiate with you now based on your present circumstances for a real DPA.

Q. The utility still insists on a large down payment to restore service which I do not have and refuses to restore service unless I make the large upfront payment. What can I do?

A. The Public Service Commission (PSC) must review and decide a dispute over the terms of a DPA and may order the utility to immediately restore service. Call the PSC Hotline at 1-800-342-3355.

 

Energy Service Companies (ESCOs)

 

Q. Should I buy my electricity/gas from a company other than my utility?

A. Previously, one utility company provided all services (supply and delivery) to consumers at rates set by the Public Service Commission (PSC). Now, some formerly "bundled" elements of service, such as natural gas or the generation of electric energy, are "unbundled" and available separately from new companies, while the "pipes and wires" continue to be provided by the monopoly gas and electric distribution company.

Persons who do not choose a new provider for the competitive portion of utility service may continue to receive full service from the distribution company.

Presently, the new electric and gas companies do not follow the Home Energy Fair Practices Act and their rates are not filed with or approved by the PSC. Their services may cost more or less than service from your present utility provider.  Lists of competitive natural gas and electricity providers can be obtained from your utility or the PSC. Although numerous competitive companies may be listed at those sites, not all are actually providing residential service.

Q. Con Edison shut off my electric, but I can show I paid them for all their delivery service charges every month. I didnt pay for ESCO charges. I called the Public Service Commission Hotline and they said I had to pay all the money due, which is $459. But it was a scam: an ESCO salesman with a clipboard came to my door and promised I would save money, that my Con Edison bills would go down, but in fact the bills were much higher. I didn't agree to pay more for my electric service. I stopped paying the ESCO charges, and paid only the Con Edison delivery charges, but then Con Edison shut my service off.

A. Con Edison purchases receivables from ESCOs, i.e., the ESCO bill, so the ESCO charge became a bill owed to Con Edison. Con Edison collects the money by adding the ESCO charges to its 'delivery' charges on the bill. If a customer does not pay the bill in full, including the ESCO charges now owed to Con Edison, late charges are added, and the customer eventually can be shut off for nonpayment, as in your case.

Q. Why did the Public Service Commission not open a complaint proceeding and look into whether the contract with the ESCO was knowingly and willingly entered into?

A. We do not know. If they did, you would be still required to pay the amount not in dispute, which probably would be the amount Con Edison would charge for electricity if the ESCO had not obtained your signature on the switching agreement with promises of savings.

Q. What can I do to get service back?

A. Under the Public Service Law §32.2(d), Con Edison must calculate what it would have charged you if you had not been induced to switch to the ESCO, and must restore service if you pay (or make arrangements to pay) that amount. It is not clear from your question whether Con Edison made that calculation. We recommend you ask Con Edison to charge you only what you would have paid for the same amount of electricity if you had not been induced to switch to ESCO service. If you have difficulty paying that amount all at once, you may be able to enter into a deferred payment agreement to pay the arrears in installments based on your financial situation.


 

Applying for Assistance

 

Q. Can I get public assistance to help pay my bill?

A. If you have a shut off notice you or a friend that you designate may take it to the County Department of Social Services (DSS) or a New York State Human Resources Administration (HRA) center and apply for assistance to meet an immediate need. You can also telephone DSS or HRA, but this may not be as effective, especially if you do not have an open case.

If your termination is scheduled within 72 hours (3 days), be sure to tell them that you have this emergency because the agency is required to interview you that day and to determine if you have an immediate need and how it will be met. You should receive a notice of “Action Taken on Your Request for Assistance to Meet and Immediate Need.

Q. What if I have an emergency? Where can I get help?

A. Contact the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) hotline at1-800-342-3009 for questions about HEAP, food stamps (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). 

 

 

Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP)

 

Q. What is HEAP?

A. HEAP is the Home Energy Assistance Program, a federal block grant to each state designed to reduce energy burdens for low income households.  In New York State, HEAP is administered by the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA).

Q. What's the difference between 'Regular' and 'Emergency' HEAP?

A. "Regular" HEAP assists low-income New Yorkers with the cost of heating their homes during the colder months (November - April). Eligibility and benefits are based on income, household size, the primary heating source and the presence of a household member who is under age six, a person age 60 or older or someone who is permanently disabled.

"Emergency" HEAP is an additional benefit available to HEAP-eligible customers that have an energy-related emergency such as a shut-off of gas and/or electricity service, a 72-hour notice of termination, or a final termination notice. Apply for emergency benefits at your local Department of Social Services.

As a HEAP recipient, you may also qualify for weatherization services and furnace replacement. Contact your local Community Action Agency for more information.

Q. How do I apply for Regular HEAP?

A. “Regular” HEAP benefit season opens each November. If you reside outside of New York City, you may apply for HEAP online by going to mybenefits.ny.gov.  You can also submit a printed application to your county department of social services office or other HEAP certifier.  Applications are available at ODTA when the HEAP application acceptance period opens.

Q. How do I apply for Emergency HEAP?

A. Apply for emergency benefits at your county department of social services office.

Q. I'm on short-term disability due to an injury and I can't pay my bill. I was told to wait until I received a disconnection notice before applying for HEAP. I didn't get my disconnection until two days after the HEAP program closed for the season. What can I do?

A.  Here are a few alternative ways to get assistance paying your utility bills if you miss the HEAP deadline:

1. Emergency HEAP- if you actually filled out an application before the program closed, you might qualify if it was in process or if it was erroneously denied.  But if you did not apply before then you are not going to receive it.  Even if f you were mis-advised that will not bind the agency, and they cannot award HEAP if you did not apply before it closed.

2. Emergency Utility Assistance Program - if you have a shutoff notice for utility service you may still qualify for aid under another program from the county department of social services. The energy assistance in this program is available year round, and is available even if your income is above the public assistance level. You must fill out an application for public assistance, but you don't need to qualify for monthly grants (you may if you wish seek only the energy assistance).  There should be a question on page 1 of the application asking if you have an emergency, including a shutoff notice, which you should answer yes, and you should bring in your shutoff notice.

The department of social services will pay for an eligible applicant an amount equal to the last four months bills, and the utility will be required to withdraw the shutoff notice. You may be required to sign a repayment agreement, to pay the money back to social services if your income is above the public assistance eligibility guidelines. If you previously received such aid and did not repay it, you may be denied assistance.

If you are not given assistance, you must be given a written notice of denial and the reasons. Assistance denials by county departments of social services are appealable to the state through an  emergency fair hearing process.

If it takes time to apply for the aid and the shutoff date is soon. ask the utility to hold off on a shutoff for a short time while you are applying for aid at social services.

3.  Deferred Payment Agreement with the utility - if you don't get assistance,from social services, you may be able to work out a payment plan with the utility which would require you to pay the current bills and repay the arrears over time.  The down payment on the arrears and the monthly repayment can be as low as nothing down and $10 a month, depending on your financial circumstances.  If you have broken a prior payment plan that was in writing and signed by you, however,the utility may choose not to offer another deferred payment plan.

4.  PSC Hotline - if you have a problem with the utility regarding more time to apply for assistance or a payment plan, the PSC hotline may be able to assist you.  The Hotline staff have the power to order the utility to keep service on.  1-800-342-3355.

 

 

Sub-Metering

 

Q. What is 'sub-metering'?

A. Many apartment dwellers, particularly those who live in multiple family dwellings in New York City, have no need to apply for utility service because electricity is delivered to the landlord’s master meter and distributed to each residence by building management. The cost of the electricity is included in the rent.

Residential sub-metering occurs when landlords sell electric service to tenants in multi-family residential buildings. A sub-meter is installed in each apartment to measure individual tenants’ electricity consumption. The utility or energy service provider delivers electricity to the master meter at bulk rates. The landlord no longer pays the total cost of electricity used in the building but instead includes in rent the tenant’s cost of electricity (as measured by their sub-meter).  Tenants pay their landlord (or the landlord’s sub-metering company) monthly for the electricity used in their apartments.

Sub-metering is not the same as direct metering. Direct metered tenants purchase their electricity at a residential rate directly from the utility or from an energy service provider.

Q. Is my landlord allowed to sub-meter my utility service?

A. Landlords need regulatory approval from the Public Service Commission (PSC), which requires written notification to tenants that their landlord is seeking approval to sub-meter.

Landlords also need approval from the Department of Housing & Community Renewal (DHCR) to sell electricity to tenants in rent-regulated apartments. DHCR approval gives tenants a rent reduction when sub-metering starts. The rent reduction usually doesn’t offset the cost for electricity. For example, if the tenant’s rent reduction were $60, their typical sub-metered utility bill might be $110 (effectively a $50 rent increase).  Upon lease renewal, any rent increase is calculated on the reduced rent that was paid under the old lease.  For example, a tenant received a $60 monthly rent reduction from $1,000 to $940 when sub-metering started.  Upon renewal, a 7 percent rent increase would be $65.80 (based on $940) instead of $70 (based on $1,000).

Q. How am I billed for sub-metered electricity?

A. Tenants receive a monthly electric bill from either the landlord or a sub-metering company. The bill should show the quantity of electricity consumed and the charge for that electricity. A $4.00 service charge is added to the bill, which reimburses the landlord for administrative costs.

Landlords of sub-metered buildings often bill their tenants separately for rent and electricity. If a tenant makes partial payment intended to cover their rent but not the electric bill, the landlord might instead allocate the payment first to the electric bill and then to rent.  In this way, the landlord can frustrate the laws and benefits protecting electric customers by seeking eviction for nonpayment rather than termination of electric service.

Q. How much does sub-metered electricity cost?

A. Orders granting landlords permission to sub-meter contain a rate cap. The rate cap simply states that sub-metered tenants may not be billed more per month, including service charges and late fees, than they would pay if they were direct metered customers of the utility serving their area.

The rate cap is useless, however, because tenants have no way to determine what they would pay if they were utility customers. The Public Service Commission (PSC) doesn’t require utilities or sub-metering landlords to inform tenants of the amount they would be charged by the utility. Few utilities offer online tools or telephone support to allow sub-metered tenants to determine whether the bills they receive from their landlords exceed the rate cap. Nor does the PSC offer such tools.

Q. What else affects the cost of sub-metered electricity?

A. The amount sub-metered tenants pay for electricity depends upon several factors over which they have no control. Tenants will consume more electricity to air condition or heat poorly insulated apartments with old, leaky windows and doors, or to operate inefficient landlord-supplied appliances like old refrigerators and through-the-wall air conditioners.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) doesn’t require landlords to be energy efficient sub-metering approval. Landlords who own poorly insulated buildings with old windows, appliances and air conditioners therefore have enormous incentives to sub-meter because the building’s cost of the electricity is transferred to the tenants. In addition, most building owners can obtain grants from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to pay for most or all of the sub-meter installation costs.

Q. What if I have a dispute about my sub-metered electric bill?

A. Public Service Commission (PSC) sub-metering orders often allow landlords to evade Home Energy Fair Practices Act (HEFPA) protections. HEFPA doesn’t prohibit sub-metering, but does require landlords who sub-meter to provide tenants with the same rights and protections that utilities are required to observe when a customer has a complaint.

Unfortunately for tenants, recent PSC sub-metering approvals have authorized complaint resolution procedures that don’t comply with HEFPA. The PSC has approved arrangements that require tenants to seek resolution of sub-metering complaints in the court system instead of through the PSC complaint process. The result is that tenants risk eviction if they don’t pay what the landlord demands.

Sub-metered tenants also lose other HEFPA rights, including protections in medical emergencies, budget billing, and deferred payment agreements.

Q. Why don't I have a right to complain to the PSC like any other utility customer?

A. Public Service Commission (PSC) regulations do not permit review of a customer complaint until the customer has exhausted the utility’s complaint procedure. Landlord complaint procedures that conclude with eviction proceedings in housing court effectively prevent sub-metered tenants from complaining to the PSC. By the time tenant has exhausted the landlord’s complaint procedure, the tenant is no longer residing in the apartment or buying electricity from the landlord.

PSC orders may appear to prohibit termination of utility service for nonpayment of sub-metered electric charges, but only because the same orders contemplate eviction as the primary enforcement mechanism for nonpayment. In fact, the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA), whose board includes the Chairman of the PSC, publishes a sub-metering manual that overtly supports the eviction of tenants who dispute their sub-metered electric bills.

Q. What if I just can’t afford my sub-metered electricity bill? Can I get any assistance that could prevent me from being evicted?

A. In addition to denying access to the PSC dispute resolution process, the eviction mechanism denies substantial assistance to tenants with trouble paying utility bills.

Theoretically, a sub-metered tenant who meets the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) income eligibility guidelines could receive a regular HEAP benefit. But that tenant would not qualify for emergency HEAP or other emergency utility payment programs because the PSC doesn’t allow utility shut-offs for sub-metered tenants. Instead, the landlord would deem unpaid electric bills to be unpaid “rent” and institute an eviction proceeding.

Sub-metered tenants can be denied HEAP unless the landlord or sub-metering company has a vendor agreement with the New York Office of Temporary Disability Assistance (OTDA) - HEAP’s administrator; and can also be denied emergency utility assistance through the Department of Social Services (DSS) unless their landlords are authorized to accept DSS vouchered payments for energy assistance benefits.

 

Late Charges

 

Q. Can my utility charge me extra for paying late?

A. In the Home Energy Fair Practices Act (HEFPA) the legislature placed strict limits on the charges that may be imposed for late payment. The circumstances in which late charges may be imposed are circumscribed and the percentage amount must be set by the Public Service Commission.

Late charges may not be imposed on balances subject to a deferred payment agreement (DPA). A DPA allows customers to repay arrears over time in monthly payments made in addition to the bills for current service based on the customer's individual financial circumstances. The PSC has ruled that late charges do not apply when a customer has a DPA and is not in arrears in making DPA payments. The DPA represents a new agreement to make timely payments over time to pay past arrears. Imposing late charges frustrates the purpose of DPAs and the requirement that repayment amounts be tailored to individual financial circumstances. For example, customers making timely repayments of $10 per month will experience total arrears increases if late payment charges are imposed.

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