Utility bills

The Hy-Vee grocery store is one of several locations where customers can make payments for utility bills in St. Joseph. Utility companies are offering a range of assistance programs to help customers during the COVID-19 winter.

Nine months into a pandemic, a vaccine is viewed as the breakthrough that breaks the grip of COVID-19 once and for all.

But not right away. For John Coffman, there’s a simpler, faster way to limit the spread of the coronavirus as Missouri enters its first COVID-19 winter: guaranteed access to heat, water and electricity.

“If someone’s utilities are shut off, they’re going to have to move,” said Coffman, an attorney for the Consumers Council of Missouri. “Even if someone is not made homeless, they will probably have to move in with family or friends. There is often couch surfing and a lot of moving around, which I think you could expect would lead to more exposure.”

Duke University studied the confirmed coronavirus infections in each of the 3,141 U.S. counties from March 1 to May 31. The university found that the infection growth rate decreased 2.6% in counties with moratoriums on water and utility shutoffs.

In Missouri, utilities stopped involuntary service disconnections in the spring, but some resumed shutoffs later in the year for customers who fell behind on bills. With coronavirus cases surging in the fall and winter, the Consumers Council asked regulators for a state-imposed moratorium on all disconnections until March 31.

The Missouri Public Service Commission denied the request, saying that regulators lacked statutory authority to take that action. The PSC, which regulates investor-owned utilities, also said the consumer advocacy group did not provide evidence that a mandatory moratorium was necessary to protect the public from “immediate danger.”

State law already prohibits shutoffs in winter months when the temperature drops below 32 degrees.

However, some utilities stopped disconnecting customers on their own. In this part of the state, Evergy, which resumed disconnections in late November, reversed itself this month and issued a moratorium until March 1. Spire won’t shut off service in December, and Missouri American Water’s moratorium runs until Jan. 4.

“Our customers are our priority,” Missouri American spokeswoman Christie Barnhart said in a statement. “We understand that while water is often the lowest bill for residents it is not the only bill they may face.”

Gina Penzig, Evergy’s manager of external communications, said the electric company was glad to be able to make the decision voluntarily.

“We continue to have discussions on how the pandemic is affecting customers,” she said. “Pausing disconnects is one way we can help now.”

Utilities have expressed concerns that disconnections lead to increased bad debt as customers simply stop paying bills, a cost that could be transferred to ratepayers in the future. Utility officials urge consumers who are struggling to reach out to the companies for help with extended payment plans and other assistance.

Coffman said the pandemic resulted in more customers experiencing trouble making payments for the first time. Some don’t want to ask for help or are not comfortable working with social service agencies for assistance.

“There is money available right now in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and a variety of programs that utilities have put together,” he said. “There is relief.”

Coffman said the Consumers Council saw a moratorium on disconnections as less of an economic issue aimed at low-income Missourians and more of a health issue that benefits all.

“We’d rather people feel safe and confident sheltering at home,” he said.

Greg Kozol can be reached at greg.kozol@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowKozol.