Iowa Utilities Board ends prohibition on disconnections

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Some utility companies will be able to start disconnecting customers with unpaid bills next week, the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) decided on Wednesday. On March 27, IUB issued an order suspending all utility disconnections for the duration of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proclamation of a public health emergency. The governor’s proclamation expires on Wednesday, May 27, and the order issued by IUB ends the following day.

“In light of the easing of restrictions on business activities, the Board is modifying the March 27, 2020 order by establishing conditions and requirements that need to be met before disconnections are allowed to begin on May 28, 2020,” the IUB order states.

The order applies to “all electric and natural gas utilities, including investor-owned, municipal, and cooperative, plus all investor-owned water utilities,” according to a statement from IUB. The disconnections will start with municipal electric and natural gas utilities and electric cooperatives, who will be able to start the disconnection process on May 28. Investor-owned utilities can begin disconnections starting July 1.

The order lays out the process companies must follow to disconnect a customer — “the utility must have sent the customer a bill for utility service, the customer has not paid the bill within the 20 days allowed by Board rules, the utility has sent the 12-day disconnection notice required by Board rules, and the utility is prepared to disconnect the customer once the utility is no longer prohibited from disconnecting customers.”

The utility must also contact a customer 48 hours before a disconnection “either by telephone or door hanger.” If the utility chooses to issue that notice by phone, it has to speak to a resident, and not just leave a voicemail.

According to IUB, the warnings are meant to a give people a chance to arrange a payment plan with the company or find financial assistance to help with the past-due bill. In its statement about the new order, IUB noted that Iowa Department of Human Rights has extended the deadline for applying for assistance through its Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program until June 30.

The program “is designed to help low-income families meet the partial cost of home heating through a one-time payment made directly to the utility or heating fuel vendor,” IUB explained.

According to the IUB order, “if disconnection would present a serious danger to the health of a permanent resident at the premises” the company must delay it for 30 days.

“Utilities are encouraged to accept verbal statements for requests based upon COVID-19 related health conditions,” IUB said. “Extensions of the 30-day postponement shall be provided if the permanent resident is under quarantine for COVID-19 at the end of the 30-day period.”

In its order, IUB noted, the “Iowa-American Water Company (IAW) will not begin disconnecting customers until the number of positive tests for the virus has plateaued. IAW recognizes the importance of water as part of the requirements for preventing the spread of the virus. Other municipal water utilities, which are not subject to the Board’s jurisdiction, have developed similar policies that will allow customers to continue to have water service.”

The board said it applauds “the policies adopted by these water utilities and encourages other water utilities not regulated by the Board to adopt similar policies as part of the measures adopted to prevent the spread of the virus.”

IUB said that if Gov. Reynolds extends the moratorium on utility disconnections currently in her emergency public health declaration, the disconnections scheduled to resume next week will not go forward. At her press conference on Monday, Reynolds was asked if she would extend that moratorium, as well as the moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures.

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“While we haven’t made a decision yet, we’re continuing to look at all aspects of the declaration that will expire next week and how we can move forward, again in a responsible way, being mindful of the impact that the pandemic has had on Iowans across the state,” the governor said.

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