Some utility customers tend to neglect past-due bills unless they feel threatened with disconnected service, and that’s a weapon companies can’t use in New Mexico now.
Representatives of utilities serving state residents told the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission in a virtual workshop Thursday that instilling urgency is just about the only way to get customers who have fallen behind on bills to set up payment plans or seek aid.
A state administrator said millions of federal dollars are available for utility and rent assistance for people who struggled to keep up with payments during the coronavirus pandemic.
Because of the pandemic, the commission has generally frozen disconnections for electric and gas service until May 5 for small companies and Aug. 12 for large and investor-owned companies. The commission also has asked utility companies to work with customers to create payment plans.
Statistics provided at the workshop by 21 small utility companies indicated they have 21,251 residential accounts in arrears, and about 15,690 of those would be eligible for disconnection in early May. The average debt is $354.
The state’s largest utility, Public Service Company of New Mexico, which serves 540,000 households and businesses, said 43,349 residential customers are past due, with an average of $467 owed by each.
Another big company, New Mexico Gas Co., had 46,131 customers past due as of March, and they owed $186 on average, according to the commission.
Commissioner Joseph Maestas of Santa Fe organized the workshop with utility companies for an update on the transition to the end of the disconnection moratorium. Maestas said he expects the commission next week to consider if any changes in the program are necessary.
The debts hurt small companies in particular, he said.
Joe Garibay of El Paso Electric Co. said the moratoriums need to be lifted so people feel motivated to pursue aid through the state and payment plans with the companies.
Merely sending letters to customers informing them of how much they owe and when the freeze concludes “doesn’t generate the traction” that an ultimatum brings, Garibay said. Customers who are in financial difficulty because of the pandemic are more concerned about buying food and filling cars with gas, he added.
“But what’s happening is that debt is growing,” he said.
Mike Winrow of the Otero County Electric Cooperative agreed with Garibay. Unless companies use “somewhat threatening language,” he said, most customers won’t set up a payment plan for their utility debts.
Maestas said after the workshop he didn’t anticipate the commission lifting the moratoriums because they already are approaching an end, but he said he heard the utilities’ call for the moratoriums to end without another extension.
Donnie Quintana of the state Department of Finance and Administration said New Mexico has access to $160 million in federal utility and housing aid for people who qualify.
Applicants must show they have suffered financial hardship because of the pandemic, be of low or moderate income and face potential housing instability or homelessness. Quintana expressed confidence that many people would qualify.
“A lot of folks have struggled,” he said. The money became available April 5, he said, and the program tentatively will conclude Sept. 30.
More than 5,000 applications have been submitted so far, Quintana said.
Bianca Sopoci-Belknap of the Santa Fe-based organization Earth Care said some states have made it easier for people in financial difficulty by automatically applying the money to accounts. That way, she said, technology and language barriers are avoided.