Group Seeks to Halt Electricity Disconnetions
By Jim Saunders
A civil-rights group asked state regulators Tuesday to block utilities from disconnecting electric service for at least 90 days, as economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic continues to make it difficult for many residents to pay monthly bills.
The League of United Latin American Citizens of Florida and two utility customers filed a petition at the Florida Public Service Commission requesting an emergency rulemaking process to halt electricity shutoffs. Utilities such as Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy Florida and Tampa Electric Co. suspended disconnections after the pandemic began in the spring but recently have moved forward with plans to turn off electricity for non-payment of bills.
“Electricity is a necessity in Florida, not a luxury, given the extreme weather conditions we face in this state,” said the petition, filed by attorneys with the Earthjustice legal organization. “This is why cutting off electricity has long been recognized as a constructive eviction under Florida law. Given the necessity of keeping people socially distanced and housed, and recognizing the public health emergency, the (federal) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gov. Ron DeSantis have prohibited evictions due to the current crisis when renters and others are unable to make their payments and have nowhere else to go. Petitioners simply ask this (Public Service) Commission to give effect to these prohibitions by extending it to electricity cut offs for the duration of the crisis by using its explicit authority to protect the public welfare.”
Such a move by the commission would be unusual, but regulators have grappled with the effects of the pandemic on customers and the utility industry. In July, for example, commissioners held a workshop on the issue and heard that nearly 600,000 electric customers were behind on payments.
Duke and Tampa Electric have resumed disconnections, while FPL this month announced it would resume in October. The utilities have pointed to efforts, such as payment plans, to try to avoid shutting off power during the pandemic.
FPL said, for instance, that it is extending a period for customers to arrange payments of past-due amounts. Christopher Chapel, the utility’s vice president of customer service, said disconnection is a “last resort” and that the utility will work with customers to avoid it.
“The vast majority of customers behind on their bill have not contacted us for help, despite our widespread outreach efforts,” Chapel said in a Sept. 11 statement, as FPL announced its plans. “Our message to customers in need is simple: ‘Call us. We’re here to help.’”
But the petition filed Tuesday at the Public Service Commission asked regulators to step in and repeatedly linked the issue of electricity disconnections to evictions. The petition estimated that more than 1 million Floridians could face power shutoffs.
“Florida law has long recognized that if electricity is cut off to a person, given the need for electricity, they have suffered irreparable harm and have been constructively evicted,” the petition said. “The CDC has found that evictions will only exacerbate the current crisis, and using its public health powers, has issued a moratorium on such evictions for those that cannot pay their bills. Florida should not allow an end-run around this moratorium by allowing electricity cut offs during the present emergency. We still face several possible months of stifling heat and hurricanes, along with high levels of coronavirus transmission and deaths. We should be doing everything we can to mitigate these crises.”
Article reposted with permission from The News Service of Florida.