Where to turn for help, as utilities resume disconnects

By Kristi R. Garabrandt
The Barnesville Enterprise

Many utilities that suspended service disconnections for nonpayment during the COVID-19 pandemic have either already started or are planning to resume disconnections.

The suspension of disconnections offered by utility companies was intended to help households who were dealing with financial households from loss of income during the statewide shutdown. 

Unfortunately, many who took advantage of not paying on their utilities during that time are now being faced with having to come up with a way to pay rather large amounts to keep their utilities on. 

Matt Schilling, director, Office of Public Affairs for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), explains some of the programs available to assist Ohio residents with avoiding a service disconnection for nonpayment:

There are a few programs available to help Ohioans, according to Shilling. Some of them are based on household income and others are available to any Ohio resident.

The two most popular programs are income-based: the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) and the Percentage of Income Plan (PIP).

HEAP is available for residents whose household income is at or below the 175% federal poverty level. 

What that means in real-world dollars is a household of four can qualify for HEAP if the gross income (amount earned before deductions) is $45,850 per year or less.

HEAP provides a one-time payment toward a customer's utility bill. That payment either helps avoid disconnection or be used to get an already disconnected utility back on.

PIP is a program for low-income households that are at or below the 150% federal poverty level. 

PIP allows a customer to set their monthly utility bill for either their natural gas or electricity based on a percentage of the gross monthly income for the household. 

Those on PIP would pay six percent of their monthly income toward their utility bills. 

According to Shilling, it does not matter how much gas or electricity is used, the customer will still pay six percent of monthly income toward the bill.

Shilling also noted, that while on PIP, as long as customers continue to make the payments on time every month, the difference between what the customer is paying and what the actual bill is will be forgiven. 

Residents can sign up for either of these programs online at www,energyhelp.ohio.gov.

On the website, residents can also find a list of local agencies throughout Ohio where someone can go in person to sign up, as well.

PUCO is requiring all of the gas, electric, and water utilities that are regulated by them to offer extended payment plans for customers with overdue bills.

"You are a customer and you have an overdue bill and you receive a disconnection notice. You can contact your utility," Shilling said. "There are no income guidelines here. What they will do is spread your overdue balance out over a period of months."

PUCO regulations require the utilities to offer what is called a 1/3, 1/6, or 1/9 payment plan. With these plans, past due payments are spread out over that many months. For example, if a customer is on the 1/3 plan, the past due amount would be divided by three and paid over a three-month period. These payments are in addition to the current monthly bill. 

When the utilities throughout the state stopped voluntarily doing disconnections, PUCO requested that the utilities they regulate submit their restart plans to them and work with PUCO technical staff to make sure there are safeguards in place for utility customers.

According to Shilling, many of the utility companies have been offering above and beyond the 1/9 plan. 

Dominion Energy Ohio is offering a 1/12 plan which will allow customers to spread the past due balance out over 12 months.

If a customer facing disconnection enrolls in one of the plans and follows the payment plan, they will avoid having their services disconnected

Starting Oct. 5, PUCO will be issuing what they call their Winter Reconnect Order. 

This order will allow any customer of a PUCO regulated utility who has received a disconnect notice or has had service already disconnected either avoid disconnection or restore service with a payment of $175 regardless of how much money they owe.

If the customer opts to use the Winter Reconnect Order, they will be required to enter into one of the available payment plans.

There are no income guidelines for this order. Any Ohioan can use it. 

The Winter Reconnect Order was designed to keep families' heat on during the wintertime, according to Shilling.

For customers who want to know if their utility provider has resumed disconnections or when they plan to start and what the procedures are, the utility restart plans are available online at www.puco.ohio.gov.

Shilling also noted that PUCO operates a customer call center for customers who are having trouble with their utility company of feel the utility is being unfair with them. Customers can also call with general utility questions. Customer care can be reached toll-free at 1-800-686-7826 or online at the PUCO website.

Jessica Rine, executive director of United Way of the Upper Ohio Valley, noted that the agency has been funding programs through the Community Response Recovery Fund to assist with the toughest issues throughout the communities right and what they are seeing is the biggest issues are utilities, food and housing.

"We have been able to help a lot of families through that, but this is not a problem that is unique to COVID so therefore we will continue to promote programs that we fund throughout the year and what they specifically help with," Rine said. 

Rine noted that oftentimes when someone comes in and says that they can't pay their utilities for the month that there is probably an underlying issue there. 

"Case managers can help get to the bottom of that issue to offer permanent resolve instead of just being able to fix the problem as it comes up and Catholic charities is one of the agencies that does that for us," Rine said. Salvation Army of Belmont County is another one that provides that type of service.

According to Rine, if a household is facing a utility disconnection there's likely to be other things that they cannot afford. There are other ways the agency can probably help them.

"If they reach out to us for utility assistance, we can probably help with food assistance too. A lot of people may be too proud to take that help but, that frees up money in your account for other necessities that are needed for your family," Rine said. "So take advantage of what's available to you now especially with so much state and federal money available from the CARES Act going to support these agencies. Don't be too proud to ask for help because taking advantage of these services will alleviate some of that financial strain and make your mental health healthier."

When someone reaches out to the United Way agency they are directed to call 211, a community helpline funded by the United Way, but run through the information helpline which is the same agency that operates the emergency food and shelter program.

When a resident calls 211, an operator will take their information and let them know what social services agencies are available. 

Sue Thomas Sikora, assistant director of the Guernsey County Department of Jobs and Family Service and OhioMeansJobs Guernsey County encourages residents to reach out to their utility providers and see what programs or assistance is available to them during the Restart Phase. It's also a way to find out what local agencies are available for them such as the HEAP. Guernsey County residents can contact HEAP at 740-732-2388. Locally, GMN Tri-County CAC operates the local HEAP and the emergency HEAP plans. They are located in Caldwell. 

According to Sikora, the Guernsey County DJFS also provides utility assistance to qualifying individuals.

"For those families in households at 200% or less of the federal poverty level may qualify for up to $500 assistance toward a heat source (electric, gas, fuel oil) and water, as well. A disconnect notice is required for either utility," Sikora said.  "We also provide up to $500 toward rent or mortgage payments. The program is supported through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and does require the applicant to be financially responsible for a child under 18. Applicants can apply for these one time in a six-month period."

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Where to get help

PUCO websites to go to for utility assistance: