In many ways, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and her follow west coast Democratic Govs. Jay Inslee and Gavin Newsom largely aligned their COVID-19-related strategies. However, Inslee and Newsome instituted directives to protect residents from getting utilities like water or power shut off if someone can’t pay their bills. Brown has not. OPB recently ran an analysis looking at what this potentially means to Oregonians.
Oregon’s investor-owned larger utility companies like Pacific Power and Portland General Electric did voluntarily stop cutting off customers who are behind on their bills. The state’s consumer-owned utilities also enacted a self-imposed moratorium on disconnecting consumers.
“The actions taken by these regulated utilities will help ensure continued access to essential utility services without fear of disconnects or penalty charges for families experiencing hardships during this health crisis,” Oregon Public Utilities Commission Chair Megan Decker said during an April 20 announcement.
However, as spring turned into summer and the COVID-19 crisis continued, many of Oregon’s consumer-owned utilities have ended their self-imposed moratorium, resuming regular disconnection practices. The fact is that many of these companies are not required to share their disconnection data with the state, and many of these utilities receive power from the Bonneville Dam.
“The people not paying their bill by and large are struggling,” Bob Jenks, Executive Director of the Citizens’ Utility Board (CUB), told OPB. “You’ve got to approach folks who are struggling right now with a whole lot of empathy.”
When asked about this issue at a press event, Brown said: “No one should go without electricity during this crisis. We have been working with utilities to ensure there are no cutoff notices.”
Yet, shutoffs for unpaid power bills resumed July in Marion and Polk counties. They began in Eugene on Aug. 10. Ashland has seen both water and power disconnections. Leaders in the respective consumer-owned utilities say that placing a seemingly endless moratorium on payments is unworkable.
In June, Portland General Electric reported the value of its past-due payments doubled between January and June 19, from $14 million to $28 million.
“The potential for disconnection of services is a powerful tool,” Joe Harwood, spokesman for the Eugene Water & Electric Board told OPB. “It’s an important tool.”
In March, Jenks joined representatives of the Community Action Partnership of Oregon and the NW Energy Coalition to call for “a statewide moratorium on all utility disconnections until next spring, the reconnection of all customers who have been shut off for nonpayment, and action to make it easier for low-income customers to qualify for bill assistance.“
Keith Kueny of the Community Action Partnership of Oregon, proposes giving customers two years to pay back unpaid bills and suggests that utilities forgive some portion of unpaid bills.
“We’ve asked the governor several times, and she just continues not to do anything on it,” Kueny said in late July.
CUB has proposed the creation of a $100 million fund to help offset unpaid bills. Should the economy in Oregon rebound to an unemployment rate lower than nine percent, then all utilities would be released from these commitments.
Brown has sent a letter to consumer-owned utility companies requesting that they send the government their disconnection details so the state can make better informed decisions about where this issue lies.
As of Aug. 25, the state’s electric co-ops were still reviewing the request,