Lawmakers poised to fast-track new utility shutoff protections

Roughly 1M people behind on electric, gas, water bills

By: - March 21, 2022 6:55 am

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (Photo by Danielle Richards for New Jersey Monitor)

Lawmakers appear poised to fast-track a bill creating new utility shutoff protections following the lapse of the state’s shutoff moratorium last week.

Senate and Assembly committees will weigh a measure Monday allowing residents behind on their utility bills the ability to defer payments while they seek financial assistance from the state.

Close to a million New Jerseyans are at risk of having their services severed because of the moratorium lapsing, and the bill’s sponsors say it’s not fair for residents to have their services shut off while they wait for the state to process their aid applications.

“These shutoffs are going to have a devastating impact on the community if we don’t give them a little more time and allow people to be able to apply for relief from the utility assistance fund,” said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), the bill’s prime Assembly sponsor.

If the measure clears committees in both chambers Monday — bills posted in committee rarely fail to advance — the measure is expected to see votes before the full Senate and Assembly Thursday and could be signed into law before the end of the week. Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to sign it.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) in the Senate, would provide residents who apply for utility aid from a state agency with a 60-day grace period during which their utilities cannot be shut off.

Utility companies would not be able to shut off the customers unless state authorities approve or deny the request for aid. To receive the grace period, residents must apply before June 15.

The measure would also bar municipalities from placing a lien on a resident’s property over unpaid electric, water, or sewer charges during the 60-day window. Liens would also be barred while a customer appeals a denied application for utility assistance.

Utility providers would be required to offer residents who received a 60-day shutoff delay a 12-month repayment plan after the grace period lapses. Utility shutoffs could resume if a resident does not accept the payment plan within 30 days of its offer.

“A lot of people are still on unemployment. They’re still having a lot of challenges. The state hasn’t paid out a lot of people, so as a result of that, it wouldn’t be right to turn off people’s electricity,” said Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), a prime sponsor of the bill.

The measure would also order utilities to immediately restore services suspended between the end of the state’s utility shutoff moratorium and the bill’s effective date if a customer applies for aid from the state.

New Jersey’s utility shutoff moratorium and the state’s winter termination program, which bars shutoffs during winter months, lapsed on March 15, allowing providers to begin sending shutoff notices to customers behind on their utility bills.

Board of Public Utilities President Joe Fiordaliso said last week roughly 850,000 residents were behind on electric and gas bills, with another 157,000 in arrears on water utility payments. Collectively, they owe more than $710 million.

“We’re talking about a lot of people, and it’s going to take a lot of time to process those applications for relief and make determinations on eligibility,” Mukherji said. “I understand why it’s going to take them time to do that, but in the meantime, they shouldn’t be suffering because we’re still processing all the relief claims.”

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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.