NJUA CEO Churchelow: Use federal dollars to pay down outstanding utility charges

Most people agreed there should be a moratorium on utility payments at the onset of the pandemic. The move literally helped keep the lights on when many jobs were hold.

Now comes the complicated part: Finding a way to make those accounts up to date.

New Jersey Utilities Association CEO Thomas Churchelow has a plan: Use federal relief to help pay down these overdue bills — which now total more than $500 million.

Speaking at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities quarterly meeting last Friday, Churchelow spoke on the importance of dedicating American Rescue Plan dollars to help pay down utility arrearages that have built up during the pandemic.

He also seconded comments from BPU President Joe Fiordaliso, urging customers facing past-due bills to reach out to their utility regarding payment assistance programs. He warned, however, that such programs may not be enough.

“While we can now work more effectively to get customers into these assistance programs, and while we are confident customers will continue to pay what they can afford toward their owed bills, the utilities do have concerns that a large amount of utility services provided during the COVID-19 pandemic may remain uncompensated even after the late stages of the recovery, so, it is critical we maximize available federal funding, as these unresolved costs could ultimately have downstream effects on utility costs,” he said.

Churchelow said utilities have worked closely with the state to get the word out about such programs — but said not enough consumers are taking advantage of them.

About the NJUA

The New Jersey Utilities Association describes itself as a statewide trade association for investor-owned utilities that provide essential water, wastewater, electric, natural gas and telecommunications services to New Jersey residents and businesses. NJUA has provided a forum for the exchange of ideas and a unified voice in the public policy arena for its members since 1915.

“Utilities have gone above and beyond to communicate with customers by leveraging direct calls, emails, text messages, digital and social media marketing, door hangers and customer service technologies like LiveAgent,” he said. “The utilities are using a multipronged approach to connect and guide customers to programs that can resolve their unpaid bills.

“Even with these efforts, there unfortunately have remained relatively low take rates on assistance, so, again, please contact your utility about assistance and enhanced deferred payment arrangements. And I note again for our decisionmakers at the state level that additional funding from American Rescue Plan dollars would provide certainty and resolution for customers, and for the utilities.

“We also are pleased that the board continues to work with (the Department of Community Affairs) and utilities to streamline this effort and urge continuing of that work so that funds are directed to customer accounts having arrearages with minimal administrative challenge for the customer or the utility.”

Churchelow noted using federal relief funds for this purpose is well inside the guidelines for the funding.

“Guidance from the U.S Department of the Treasury outlines that these funds can be used to deliver ‘aid to unemployed workers and job training, as well as aid to households facing food, housing or other financial insecurity,’” he said. “We hope that you consider these utility arrearages as a symptom of financial insecurity and will use these funds to resolve these unpaid debts.”