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With utility bills surging, advocates fear New Yorkers with debt will face shut-offs

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VESTAL, NY (WSKG)—Home heating prices are up as natural gas supply costs continue to surge worldwide. This comes, however, as households in New York face staggering utility debt, which advocates worry will be difficult to pay back in time.

In March, nearly 1.3 million New Yorkers were at least 60 days behind on their electric and gas bills, according to monthly reports utility providers filed with the New York Department of Public Service.

New Yorkers owe $1.7 billion—more than double what they owed utility providers in March 2020, according the Public Utility Law Project.

The bill surge has affected all of New York’s major utility companies, including Southern Tier service provider NYSEG.

The bills NYSEG customers receive are broken down into three categories: the cost to deliver electricity and gas, related fees and the cost of the electricity or gas itself. While Michael Jamison, a spokesperson for the company, said it hasn’t raised its delivery rates, the cost to supply gas is up; customers’ bills reflect that.

But households were already further behind on their utility payments than they were pre-pandemic. NYSEG customers alone owed $53.7 million as of March.

For comparison, in March 2020, customer arrears were valued at $27.3 million.

“The outcomes are going to come out right now, and they’re going to come out in the next couple of months,” said Amber Johnson, a community organizer with the New York Energy Democracy Alliance. “It’s going to be a catastrophe.”

Johnson, whose organization advocates for equitable energy policies statewide, said the surge in prices has affected households without discrimination. Her own NYSEG bills tripled this winter.

But the burden of high energy costs weighs significantly more on low-income households, she added.

“People that don't have disposable income, or things to move and shake, are getting equally as high bills but the impact is different,” Johnson said. “Because now it's like, ‘Well, I don't have money to move and shake. That means, okay, maybe I can't have gas in my car this week,’ because people need to have their heat on.”

Johnson said she worries those residents will face the first shut-offs if neither the state nor utility providers step in to relieve customer debt.

The statewide moratorium on utility shut-offs expired last December. Cold weather protections that require service providers to ensure heat shut-offs won't cause health or safety problems, will loosen by April 15.

“For the debt in general, including the COVID debt, I want to see NYSEG pay for it,” Johnson said.

Jamison, the NYSEG spokesperson, declined to comment on whether the company would take debt relief measures, but said it has offered customers flexible payment options.

Under state law, customers who cannot pay their bill have at least 35 days from when it was due to come up with other options before utility providers can cut their power. The utility provider must issue a notice of final termination at least 15 days before a scheduled shut-off.

Lawyers with the non-profit Public Utility Law Project advise residents with utility debt to pay what they can, when they can. Speaking to residents during a webinar for Southern Tier residents last month, they said that can help residents better negotiate deferred payment options.

While applications for assistance with utility arrears closed in March, applications for future home cooling assistance will open on May 2.