NORTH CAROLINA, USA — A new report by the State of North Carolina Utilities Commission found that 1.3 million delinquent accounts have been spared from disconnection during the COVID-19 pandemic, totaling more than $31 million in late fees and penalties since April 1.
The agency's report, which is dated July 15, reveals utilities across the state have not charged customers any late fees or penalties on their bills since the beginning of April. As a result of the growing need to pay utility bills, Gov. Roy Cooper said he plans to use federal money to offer relief to North Carolinians.
"My administration is putting in place an effort to help people with their rent and utility bills..." Gov. Cooper said earlier this week. "...The idea of this CARES Act money would be to make direct payments to utility companies in order to make sure that power was not cut off or make payments directly to landlords to make sure tenants were not evicted."
In the meantime, NCUC has extended its moratorium on disconnections until September. The moratorium also bans late fees.
The extra time is a relief for people like Tiffany Givens. She's remained out of work since July 2 and is still waiting to collect unemployment.
"It's the end of the month," Givens said. "Everything is due around the same time."
For the first time since the pandemic started, the single mother of two started defaulting on her bills.
"I need to pay August rent. My car note and car insurance are due also," she said. " My electric bill, I need to pay that as well, but so far Duke Energy, they really haven't been pressuring people to pay their bills due to the pandemic, so while I was working, I was making payments, but this past month, I haven't been making payments."
The bills are only part of her concerns. Her family's future is uncertain
"To have two kids in tow, living on the streets, that's not ideal," she said. "I mean, I could move in with family, but I don't want to do that. I'm an adult with two kids. I don't want to impose on anyone else."
The state's most recent data show 15,935, or 6%, of Charlotte Water customers were more than 36 days past due in June, considered delinquent and eligible for disconnection. More than 55,000 Charlotte Water customers, or roughly 21%, were at least one day late on their payments, according to the agency. Charlotte Water does not have numbers to compare to this time last year, but other agencies do.
In Union County, state records show 7,589 water and wastewater customers, or 15%, were considered past due in June, compared to just 421 in June 2019.
In Lincolnton, state records show 531 water and wastewater accounts, or 10%, were past due in June compared to just 175 last year.
In a statement, Duke Energy said it's reviewing the NCUC's recent moratorium extension order and working on a plan and timeline to resume standard billing payment practices."
"We continue to encourage customers who are, understandably, behind in their payments, to pay what they can now to avoid large bill balances that may be difficult to manage later," Duke Energy said, "Regardless of the timeline, all customers will have at least one full billing cycle after we announce the resumption of standard operations to prepare, discuss options for their situation and make payment arrangements. The financial impacts from this pandemic are far from over and our commitment to customers and solutions-focused care will continue."
NCUC's order only applies to utilities regulated by the state like Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas, not municipal and cooperative utilities. Gov. Cooper's previous executive order impacting municipalities expired earlier this week.
A Charlotte Water spokesperson said the agency is now moving into the next stage of customer assistance, which includes, "continuing the temporary practice of not disconnecting customers for delinquent account balances" and "actively working with customers to address and resolve their past due balances in the coming months through payment arrangements and financial assistance."
Like Duke Energy, Charlotte Water is encouraging customers with past due balances to continue making payments to avoid accumulation of higher past due balances.
"Charlotte Water's overall goal is to work with customers over the coming months to avoid any situation where a customer is disconnected for non-payment," Public Affairs Manager Jennifer Frost said.