New Jersey’s moratorium on utility cuts has expired, but lawmakers are trying to provide residents with new protection

New Jersey residents who are behind on their utility bills may soon become eligible for a 60-day grace period from when their electric, gas and water services shut down.

The state’s moratorium on utility cuts expired on Tuesday. In an effort to prevent mass closures, lawmakers introduced legislation that would allow residents to defer payments if they requested state assistance to pay their bills.

the invoice, introduced in both the Assembly and the Senate, would ensure that residents who apply for financial assistance before June 15 continue to receive public services while the state processes their applications for assistance. It could pass the legislature and be signed by Gov. Phil Murphy later this week.

“We’re talking about a lot of people, and it’s going to take a long time to process these relief requests and make decisions on eligibility,” said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, a Democrat from Hudson County. and main sponsor of the bill. told the New Jersey Monitor. “I understand why it’s going to take time for them to do this, but in the meantime they shouldn’t suffer as we are still dealing with all relief requests.”

The bill would require utility companies to offer a 12-month payment plan option to residents who have been given a 60-day grace period. Utilities could discontinue service if a resident does not accept the plan within 30 days.

State agencies – including the Board of Public Utilities – have 90 days to approve or deny a request for assistance. Residents must be notified by mail within three days of the agency’s decision.

More than one million New Jersey residents owe more than $710 million in arrears to gas, electric and water utility companies, said Joseph Fiodaliso, chairman of the Board of Public Utilities.

New Jersey lifted its COVID-19 public health emergency on March 4, removing its mask mandate in schools, and ending the majority of relief measures adopted in 2020.

The moratorium on state utility shutdowns was set to expire Dec. 31, 2021, but Murphy signed legislation extending it until March 15. It required utility companies to offer 12-month interest-free payment plans to residents needing help paying off their arrears. invoices.

As the moratorium expires, New Jersey officials have urged residents to seek additional help as soon as possible to avoid utility cuts.

“We know that the pandemic has brought to light the difficulties families have in making ends meet, and for a significant number of households, this was the first time they had encountered such difficulties,” Fiodaliso said Last week. “Help is available and now that the Winter Termination Program and Grace Period are ending, we are redoubling our call for anyone who is behind on their bills to contact your utility and ask for help. ‘aid.”

Residents can apply for financial assistance through the Universal Service Fund, which provides a monthly credit on electricity and gas bills for households with an income below 400% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that’s $106,000 a year.

the Home Energy Assistance Program for Low-Income People helps households earning less than 60% of state median income pay for their energy bills. In New Jersey, families of four earning about $77,000 or less are eligible. Up to $1,500 in grants are available.

the Water assistance program for low-income householdswhich has the same eligibility requirements as LIHEAP, helps households cover water and sewer bills.

A complete list of relief programs available to New Jersey residents struggling with reimbursement is on the state’s website. website.

“These closures are going to have a devastating impact on the community if we don’t give them a little extra time and allow people to apply for relief from the utility assistance fund,” Mukherji said.

New Jersey’s moratorium was the last in the region to expire. Pennsylvania’s stoppage ban expired April 1; Delaware utilities began sending shutdown notices after July 1.

PSE&G, which has service offices in Camden and Burlington counties, told KYW about 275,000 customers were at risk of losing service. But spokeswoman Rebecca Mazzarella said the closures are a last resort. The utility is encouraging customers to set up deferred payment plans to avoid service disconnections.

“We understand that the pandemic has caused many people a significant impact on their jobs, their economy, their way of life, and many of our customers have had to make tough choices about which bills to pay,” Mazzarella said.

PSE&G customers who have already applied for state assistance are urged to alert the utility. PSEG will provide customers with a 90-day grace period for closures pending an eligibility decision.

Julio V. Miller