Maryland extends notice for utility customers facing bill assistance shortages



(The Center Square) – As Maryland grapples with a heatwave, the Maryland Public Service Commission is mandating that electric and gas utilities extend the notice period for customers facing potential service disconnection due to a funding shortfall in two utility bill assistance programs managed by the Maryland Department of Human Services Office of Home Energy Programs.

“While moratoriums on service terminations may be necessary, sometimes the potential negative consequences can outweigh the benefits. As the Fuel Fund of Maryland noted, a moratorium on disconnections– and the resulting accumulation of arrearages– can make it difficult for low-to-moderate-income households to catch up on their overdue bills once the moratorium ends,” according to the commission.

While refraining from imposing a moratorium on service shut-offs, the commission acknowledges the voluntary efforts of most Maryland utilities to halt disconnections for customers recently denied assistance.

“While the Commission has opted not to impose a moratorium on service shut-offs for affected customers behind on their bills, it recognizes that most Maryland utilities have voluntarily halted disconnections to customers whose assistance applications have been recently denied, and strongly encouraged all other Maryland utilities to do the same until at least July 31, 2024,” according to the commission.

In April, the commission learned that funding for the Maryland Energy Assistance Program and the Gas Arrearage Retirement Assistance Program had been exhausted, leading to application denials from April 17, 2024, through the completion of the fiscal year, ending on June 30.

In response, the commission sought comments from utilities and other stakeholders to gauge the impact and appropriate measures to mitigate customer hardships.

The responses indicated that most utilities had already halted disconnections for affected customers and actively provided information on alternative assistance programs. The commission found that a moratorium on disconnections could potentially exacerbate the financial burden on low-to-moderate-income households, making it harder for them to recover once the moratorium ended.

Adopting a recommendation from the Maryland Energy Advocates Coalition, the commission directed utilities to extend termination notice periods by 15 days for customers denied OHEP funds between April 17 and June 30. Utilities are required to report back to the commission within 30 days on their compliance with this directive and other protective measures taken, according to the commission.

Additionally, the commission has requested a report from DHS on the long-term funding outlook for OHEP and the timing for the distribution of MEAP and GARA funds in the new fiscal year.

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