Bill barring water, sewer shutoffs until March goes to Murphy’s desk

By: - December 21, 2021 7:46 am

Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

A bill that would bar water and sewer shutoffs until mid-March went to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk after winning approval in both chambers of the Legislature Monday.

The measure, which cleared the Senate and Assembly in unanimous votes, would halt shutoffs until March 15, 2022. Municipal utilities would be barred from placing, selling, and enforcing liens for unpaid utility charges until the same date.

New Jersey, through the Board of Public Utilities Winter Termination Program, already provides this protection for electricity and gas utilities. Those services cannot be shutoff between Nov. 15 and March 15 for non-payment caused by unemployment or illness, among other things.

The bill approved Monday also bars the collection of interest that accrues on unpaid utility bills between Jan. 1 and March 15

“The goal of this legislation is to give individuals an extended grace period to be able to pay those bills without the threat of losing their water,” said State Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden), its prime Senate sponsor.

Under the bill, utility providers would be forced to negotiate a payment plan with ratepayers who find themselves in arrears. The minimum term allowed would be 12 months, unless a ratepayer requests a shorter term or the utility provider offers a payment plan forgiving at least 50% of the customer’s debt.

New Jersey’s utility shutoff moratorium — ordered to help customers facing financial issues because of the pandemic — lapses on Dec. 31, though the state has other protections for those who cannot pay their utility bills.

The measure’s movement comes as COVID-19 cases surge in New Jersey and the region. The state on Monday reported 6,505 new cases. Totals have been higher on only two days, Jan. 13, 2021, when the state reported 6,922 cases, and Dec. 19, when it reported 6,533 cases.

Murphy has floated renewed virus restrictions in the face of the rising case counts, though he and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) have said an extension of the state’s eviction moratorium was not in the pipeline as of Monday.

The Department of Community Affairs in October sent notices publicizing a $375 million pot of aid to roughly 350,000 households that had fallen behind on their utility payments.

Though the bill passed through the Senate with little incident, its approval in the lower chamber came more than ten hours into a marathon voting session extended by a handful of Republican members who attempted to defy the Statehouse vaccine policy.

All entrants to the Statehouse must provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test, with a remote option for who do not comply or cannot attend in person.

Assembly members Bob Auth, Serena DiMaso, Gerard Scharfenberger, Erik Peterson, Brian Bergen, and Jay Webber — who voted remotely — commented on almost every bill that came to a vote, significantly extending the session.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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