CA launches new program to reduce utility shutoffs


It is an aggressive new program. No other state has set benchmarks for its utilities to decrease disconnections for those who can't afford to pay their bills, until now.

Sheek Williams of San Rafael knows firsthand what it's like to live under the threat of losing her electricity. "I'm a single parent, so if we don't have electricity, I can't cook. My whole entire house is electricity, so I can't cook. My son can't eat. It became very stressful for me," she told ABC7. Sheek has been on a subsidized energy assistance program for three years and receives a 20 percent discount on her utilities.

"This is exactly the type of financial programs out there, the temporary assistance programs and the payment plans, that are there to help," says Joe Molica with PG&E. But six months ago, Sheek went on disability and fell behind. She received a 15-day notice warning that her utilities could be shut off if she couldn't pay. A couple of weeks later, she received another late notice, this time giving her 48 hours to pay her bill.

"When things are going wrong in people's lives, having their utility bills or having their utility services cut off is just not acceptable," says Joseph Como, acting director of California's Division of Ratepayer Advocates. The DRA joined consumer groups two years ago and urged the California Public Utilities Commission to look at the high rate of shutoffs. That rate peaked in 2009 when PG&E disconnected more than 8 percent of all its customers in the care program. Compare that to San Diego Gas & Electric which has a disconnection rate for care customers of just 3.8 percent.

"What we wanted from the very beginning, that they look at each others' practices and see what works for all of them and adopt the best practices of each other," explained Sepideh Khosrowjah, chief of staff for CPUC Commissioner Mike Florio. Emergency measures were put in place mandating that utilities work out payment plans with customers. Ratepayers must be given a minimum of three months to pay off delinquent bills. Since then, the rate of shutoffs for PG&E care customers has dropped 31 percent to 5.6 percent in 2011. "That's a sign that we're making progress, and in the middle of one of the worst economies in recent memory," Molica said.

But the CPUC thinks PG&E can do better. It has given PG&E until the end of 2013 to reduce its shutoff rate for care customers to 5 percent. "That doesn't sound like a big difference, but that represents about 20,000 additional customers," Como said.

As for Sheek, she received a pledge from the federally-funded Home Energy Assistance Program to pay $400 of her delinquent bill. PG&E has put her on a payment plan for the rest of the money. "It's good. It puts me at ease. It really puts me at ease," she told ABC7.

If you're struggling with your utility bill, call PG&E customer service. You can negotiate a payment plan.

In addition to the five percent target given to PG&E, Southern California Edison must reduce its rate to 6 percent, Southern California Gas to 4.3 percent, and San Diego Gas & Electric to 3.4 percent. The commission set benchmarks it felt were achievable for each utility.

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