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Pa. utility commission postpones decision on shutoffs

(Source: PA Public Utility Commission)

(Source: PA Public Utility Commission)
(Source: PA Public Utility Commission)

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission on Thursday postponed a decision on whether to allow utility companies to resume service shutoffs for customers who are behind on their payments.

The commission now plans to decide on Sept. 17 whether to lift a moratorium on shutoffs imposed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement, commission Chairwoman Gladys Brown Dutrieuille said, "I do believe that we will eventually get to a vote on this matter and it will be a well-informed and considered vote."

Utility companies estimate about 845,000 Pennsylvanians are far enough behind on their payments to be eligible for shutoffs, up nearly 10% from 2019.

Consumer advocates warn that ending the state moratorium would plunge thousands of families already hard-hit by the pandemic and its economic repercussions further into crisis. While there are programs to help, they would be swamped by widespread shutoffs, they said.

Utility companies, however, say maintaining the moratorium is unsustainable particularly if it extends until the state's regular winter moratorium, which extends from the end of November through the following March.

Their position echoes that of Ephrata Borough, which resumed shutoffs last week. Were a moratorium to persist until next spring, many customers would be too far behind to ever catch up, officials there said.

As a municipal utility, Ephrata's service is outside the commission's jurisdiction.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, previous commission votes  in June and July on ending the moratorium broke down along party lines, 2-2. One position on the commission is unfilled.

Gov. Tom Wolf supports maintaining the moratorium. Dutrieuille, however, has signaled she is open to relaxing it at least to some degree, the Inquirer said.