Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Thousands of New Mexico customers who are behind on electricity and gas payments will once again be at risk of being disconnected as soon as next month.
A moratorium from the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission preventing utilities from disconnecting residential customers expired earlier this year, and a mandated 90-day transition period for investor-owned utilities and large gas companies is slated to end Aug. 12, according to PRC spokeswoman Sarah Valencia. Beginning that day, Valencia said, utilities are again free to shut off services for customers who can’t pay.
Now, a pair of New Mexico utilities – New Mexico Gas Co. and Public Service Company of New Mexico – are reminding customers that they plan to return to their normal billing practices that day, and are encouraging the thousands of customers who are past due on bills to work with them on payment plans.
“We can help the customers, we just need to have the conversation,” said Tim Korte, communications manager for New Mexico Gas Co.
A number of protections designed to help vulnerable New Mexicans weather the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have begun to expire as business restrictions eased. Disconnection of services for customers with past-due accounts will begin 12 days after federal protections for tenants facing eviction are set to expire.
The federal eviction moratorium, which was issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sept. 4, bars landlords from evicting tenants for failure to pay rent, but landlords can still evict tenants for other reasons.
However, while the federal eviction moratorium is nearing its end, a stay on evictions issued by the New Mexico Supreme Court remains in place.
Tens of thousands of New Mexicans stand to be impacted by the moratorium on utility disconnections ending. PNM has estimated that more than 47,000 residential customers are currently behind on their bills, with an average past-due balance of $448. The utility has reported $21.4 million in unpaid electric bills.
On the gas side, Korte said New Mexico Gas Co. has about 34,000 residential customers statewide who stand to be affected by the moratorium ending, with an average outstanding balance of $230.
Despite that, Korte said customers shouldn’t start panicking after their first unpaid bill. Korte described disconnection as a “last resort” for the utility, after other alternatives are exhausted. The timeframe varies depending on region and payment cycle, but Korte said customers would likely receive multiple past-due notices before being informed they were at risk of disconnection. Korte added that the gas company would try to reach customers by phone and by going door-to-door to collect payments.
In the meantime, customers who can’t pay have options for assistance.
Tom Prettyman, New Mexico Legal Aid Albuquerque office managing attorney, said that anyone having difficulty with paying utilities or rent should visit www.renthelpnm.org.
There, those having difficulty paying utilities or rent can apply for aid through the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which makes available $170 million in federal aid for assistance.
The program will also cover utility assistance for up to 15 months for renters behind on bills for electricity, gas, water and sewer, trash removal, fuel oil, wood and pellets; however the funds only cover renters, not homeowners.
Additionally, both PNM and NMGC urged customers who can’t pay to reach out in order to set up a payment plan or apply for financial assistance. PNM is offering support through its COVID Customer Relief Fund, which provides a one-time credit between $50 and $200 for qualifying residential customers, and its Good Neighbor Fund, which offers an emergency credit of up to $170 for renters experiencing financial hardship. More information about these and other programs is available at www.pnm.com/help.
Korte added that NMGC customers can apply for help through the company’s HEAT New Mexico program. Small business owners can apply for aid online through the utility’s Small Business COVID-19 Relief Fund. Further payment assistance for both bills is available for residential customers through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
“There’s a lot of money available, and customers are not applying for this,” Korte said.
Maria Griego, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty economic equity director, said it is important that families take advantage of these programs.
“Kids are just going to be starting back in school in the next couple of weeks and so it can be pretty disruptive to families when they deal with an electricity outage,” she said.
Griego said it’s important that those having difficulty paying utilities get in touch with the utility company and assistance programs as soon as possible.
“The more communication,” she said, “the better.”