Nonprofit and lawmaker coalition pressures state of Florida to act on utility disconnects

600,000 Floridians at risk
Posted at 5:31 PM, Aug 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-27 17:31:55-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — More of Florida's utility companies will soon start disconnecting customers again. It comes despite the ongoing COVID-19 economic downturn.

Still struggling to make ends meet in Florida's weakened economy, Lee VanPelt worries her power will get pulled if she can't keep up with utility bills.

"It keeps me up at night," said the Tallahassee woman. "I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop."

She's not alone. A few weeks ago, utility companies told the Public Service Commission about 600,000 Floridians are behind and at risk of a disconnect.

"I'm back to work," said VanPelt. "I need to have electricity so I can get up, take a shower, get ready for work, and go to work, so I don't lose everything."

Shutoffs have resumed for several major providers. Duke Energy will start on Sept. 2.

"Duke Energy Florida has been proactively working with customers who are accumulating past-due balances on their utility bills, offering payment plans to mitigate potentially more significant financial challenges in the future," said Ana Gibbs with Duke Energy Corporate Communications in a statement. "However, some customers are currently not paying any portion of their bill, building up a large balance that will be harder to pay off later."

State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez
State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez says people continue to struggle to pay their bills wants the state to take action to protect residents from having their utilities turned off.

Gibbs said about 88,000 customers are more than 60 days delinquent. She said the company is urging them to reach out and see if they qualify for assistance.

Thirteen nonprofits and several Florida lawmakers want more than that. They're pressuring the state to get involved.

"Relying on goodwill from regulated public utilities is just not the way to go," said State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami.

Rodriguez is working with the group's campaign called "Connected in Crisis." The group is targeting a slew of changes.

Some of the biggest include:

  • Either the governor or commission to issue a disconnect moratorium through January 2021
  • Reconnect anyone shutoff since early March
  • Encourage utilities to waive fines and extend debt forgiveness

"The crisis is very much still with us," said Rodriguez. "Utility shutoffs are not something families need to be thinking about."

The group has pushed the state to act in the past. Gov. Ron DeSantis and the commission have preferred to let utilities act on their own.

DeSantis' team declining to comment Thursday afternoon on the renewed effort.

Even so, VanPelt remained hopeful the state would act. It could help her sleep a little more peacefully at night, knowing she'll be able to turn the lights on in the morning.

"This is no fault of our own," VanPelt said.

The Public Service Commission has been holding workshops to discuss COVID-19 and what to do about late payments. Commissioners plan to meet again on Sept. 1.