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'It's taking its toll on me' | Hundreds of thousands behind on utility bills across North Carolina

Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Charlotte Water data show many customers have signed up for payment plans, but not nearly enough.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — New numbers show hundreds of thousands across North Carolina are behind on their utilities.

Duke Energy's most recent data show 475,000 customers, nearly 16%, were at least 30 days behind in making a payment. In all, 170,000 accounts, nearly 6%, were enrolled in repayment plans, Duke Energy reported.

Randi Berardi is one of the many working with Duke Energy to pay what she can to keep her lights on.

"I don't sleep, honestly," she said. "I barely eat. It's taking its toll on me tremendously."

The Charlotte woman laid off in October, is desperate for HOPE Program rental and utility help. The state previously considered her initially eligible for government assistance, but Berardi said her help has yet to arrive.

"I'm getting pretty nervous," she said. "There's nothing really to help us feel secure at this point."

Duke Energy reports roughly 12,000 customers were disconnected in December due to non-payment, but "the vast majority" were reconnected within 24 hours.

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"Disconnecting a customer is a last resort and something we do not want to do," Duke Energy Spokesperson Meghan Miles said. "Our goal is to connect with customers who may need assistance and let them know funds that are available and setting them up on flexible payment arrangements, so they can avoid disconnection altogether."

According to Miles, disconnection is "the very last step in a lengthy process." Leading up to disconnecting a customer, she said Duke Energy reaches out to the customer multiple times through multiple channels to let them know their account is past-due and urges them to enroll in a flexible payment plan. 

She said, generally, customers in the Carolinas wouldn't face disconnection unless their account is about 60 days past-due.

"We recognize that many of our customers are struggling and we are here to help them," Miles said. "Our goal is to work with each and every customer who needs special assistance and work with them on a payment plan that works best for their specific situation and need over a timeline that works best for them."

Charlotte Water shares a similar willingness to help. For now, the City of Charlotte said the utility is holding off on disconnecting more than 12,000 customers who meet the cut-off criteria. Meanwhile, more than 34,000 customers, one out of 10, now have payment arrangements, according to Charlotte Water.

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"We have partnered with Crisis Assistance Ministry and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership to assist customers who are struggling to make ends meet," spokesperson Jennifer Frost said. "To date, more than 8,500 phone calls have been made to make past-due customers aware of millions of dollars available for utility bills and housing payments. We are encouraging customers to act now while financial assistance is available and before disconnections resume later this year."

Piedmont Natural Gas, meanwhile, reports roughly 90,200 Piedmont Natural Gas customers, or 13%, were considered past due at the end of December. About 15,200 of those customers are enrolled in a payment plan in North Carolina, according to a spokesperson.

The utility announced flexible payment plans for customers behind on their natural gas bills in August.

"Piedmont's return to standard business practices reflects the hardships some of our customers still face,"  Piedmont Natural Gas Senior Vice President Sasha Weintraub said in a statement at the time. "By offering flexible plans for past-due balances, we want to put our customers first and make it easier for them to get back on track."

According to the utility, Piedmont halted disconnections in December, pending the application of NC Hope funds, "to give eligible customers enough time to request flexible payment arrangements."

The utility resumed disconnections and standard billing practices in January, but continues to officer flexible payment arrangements for those "experiencing hardships due to COVID 19."

Duke Energy also temporarily suspended non-payment disconnections for eligible NC Hope applications.

"We are in the process of applying payments to nearly 9,000 accounts, which equates to about $5 million in funds for the NC Hope program," Miles said.

Randi Berardi hopes she sees some of that help soon.

"This is one of the most difficult times in my life, having to deal with this," she said.

In addition to NC Hope, Duke Energy said the Low Income Energy Assistance Program and assistance through Share the Warmth partners are also available.

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